Kitty-corner, or catty-corner, is a classic example of the phenomenon known as folk-etymology. When a word or phrase makes little apparent sense, it will often mutate into a form that seems more familiar.

The term was originally catercorner. Cater is an old dialectical term for diagonal. It derives from the French quatre or four. Cater dates to the16th century, appearing in Barnaby Googe’s 1577 translation of Heresbach’s Foure Bookes of Husbandry:

The trees are set checkerwise and so catred [partim in quincuncem directis], as looke which way ye will, they lye level.

By the early 19th century, the folk etymology had set in. From Joseph C. Neal’s 1838 Charcoal Sketches:

One of that class...who, when compelled to share their bed with another, lie in that engrossing posture called “catty-cornered.”

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

kit and caboodle

Kit and caboodle is everything, the entire of collection of things under consideration. But it’s an odd-sounding phrase to the modern ear. Kit doesn’t seem to make much sense here and what the heck is a caboodle?

The word kit is from the Middle Dutch kitte, a wooden vessel made of hooped staves. This original sense of kit remained current in English at least through the 19th century. It appears in English as early as 1375 in Barbour’s The Bruce:

Thai strak his hed of, and syne it Thai haf gert salt in-till a kyt And send it in-till Ingland.

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Kilroy was here

Kilroy was a mysterious World War II soldier who traveled all over the world scrawling the immortal phrase Kilroy was here wherever a flat surface presented itself. Often, the phrase was accompanied by a simple drawing of a big-nosed man peering over a wall. Clearly, the graffiti were scrawled by thousands of different soldiers, not a single one named Kilroy. But did Kilroy actually exist? And if so, did he start the fad?

Unfortunately, no one knows. There have been numerous people claiming to have been the original Kilroy, but none of the claims can be verified.

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Words On The Web:\worldcat

The folks that bring the Dewey Decimal System, the Online Computer Library Center, or OCLC, have a great catalog search service. By visiting their web site at http:\\\worldcat, you can enter in search terms and search a multitude of library catalogs for that book. You then enter in your city or postal code and the Worldcat service will give the libraries that that book in order of the distance from you.

For example, I enter in Word Myths and Emeryville, CA and I’m told that there are 408 libraries in the Worldcat system that have my book. The closest is the University of California Berkeley, some three miles away, followed by the San Francisco Public Library, across the bay some nine miles away. The farthest is the Singapore Polytechnic Library, half a world away.

This is an invaluable resource when you’re looking for a particularly hard-to-find book.

Classifying Human Knowledge, Part I

I’ve spent the last week organizing my library, a task that, surprisingly, has turned out to be quite interesting. In an effort to find a classification scheme that works for me, I’ve been looking at an learning about the various systems in use in libraries around the world.

The most famous is perhaps the Dewey Decimal System. Invented by Melvil Dewey in 1876, it is the most widely used library classification in the United States, used primarily by public and primary school libraries. The DDS divides all human knowledge into ten major divisions, each of these have ten possible subdivisions, these each have ten more, and so on. Hence the decimal.

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Words On The Web:

A persistent vexation of mine is not being able to find the book I want. I know it’s on the shelf somewhere, but I just can’t find it. I’ve often spent ten minutes or more tracking down a book. My personal library is large (over 500 books), but it is by no means huge. Another issue is that I occasionally find myself buying multiple copies of a book–I forget what books I already own. I’ve often thought that I can’t be the only one with this problem and that there must be an easy way of organizing my books that someone else has pioneered.

Well, this week I discovered It is a sublime website. Cataloguing a library of some size is never easy, but makes it nearly so. So what is LibraryThing?

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Revisiting the Planets, Redux

The International Astronomical Union (IAU) voted Thursday on a definition of the word planet. The proposed definition we reported on last week was rejected and the IAU defined a planet as a celestial body that

  • is in orbit around the Sun,
  • has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape, and
  • has cleared the neighborhood around its orbit.

According to the IAU, this leaves our solar system with eight planets, Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. By this definition, Pluto is not a planet because it has not cleared its neighborhood.

The IAU also rejected use of the proposed term pluton, for the class of objects similar to Pluto. That term is also commonly used by geologists for an igneous mass that forms when molten rock cools underground and it was thought that there could be confusion between the geological and astronomical senses–although that doesn’t seem very likely. Context would rule out any chance of confusion in most cases. After all, there isn’t any confusion of the geological and anatomical uses of vein.

More problematic for pluton is that in French and Italian this is the name for the former-planet Pluto. This could cause much confusion between the class and the specific body in those languages.

Instead of pluton, the IAU decided on another linguistically problematic term, dwarf planet, which is defined as a celestial body that:

  • is in orbit around the Sun,
  • has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape,
  • has not cleared the neighborhood around its orbit, and
  • is not a satellite.

Benjamin Zimmer over at Language Log has a good discussion as to why this is a questionable form in English. In English compound nouns, the more general term is usually the second noun. Catfish are fish, not felines and mountain lions are cats, not masses of rock. Although there are exceptions, like sea lion. Although a dwarf star, arguably the most similar term to dwarf planet, is most definitely a star.

But perhaps the most cogent commentary on the subject is by Ruben Bolling who penned this cartoon. The third example is the best.


Usually spelled keister (there are many alternate spellings), the original meaning of this American slang word is a satchel or suitcase. A later, and now more common sense, is that of a person’s rump or buttocks.

Dating in English to 1882, the term is from the German Kiste meaning box or case—the slang sense of rump also exists in the German. From George Wilbur Peck’s Peck’s Sunshine of that year:

The boy took the knight’s keister and went to the elevator.

A year earlier than this quote, Alfred Trumble’s The Man Traps of New York uses the word as a nickname, probably a reference to a man known for carrying a case:

Prominent among the small army of confidence operators in this city are “Grand Central Pete,"..."Boston Charlie,"..."Keister Bob,” “The Kid,” “Hungry Joe.”

Presumably, the sense of the buttocks developed because a traveling case was something you could sit upon. The earliest known citation is from an American Speech article on convict’s slang from 1931:

keister, n. A satchel; also what one sits on.

(Sources: Historical Dictionary of American Slang; Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

Planets & Plutons: An Update

Back in November of last year, I wrote about the International Astronomical Union (IAU) and how planets were named. The IAU is currently meeting and has proposed a definition of planet. (It has not had a formal definition of the term to date.) The organization will vote on the proposal on Thursday. In addition to getting into the lexicographical game by coming up with a definition, the IAU is also proposing a new term, pluton, for Pluto-like objects that orbit the sun beyond Neptune.

The new definition was prompted by the continuing debate over whether or not Pluto should be considered a planet and by the discovery of 2003 UB313, unofficially nicknamed Xena after the warrior princess of television fame, an object much further and much larger than Pluto. But the IAU had some surprises when it announced its proposed definition this week.

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Katy, bar the door

The expression Katy, bar the door means to watch out or serves as a warning of impending disaster. It dates to at least 1902 when it appears in Hugh McHugh’s (George V. Hobart’s) It’s Up to You:

It was “Katie, bar the door” with her.

But who was Katy (or Katie) and why was she locking the door?

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