Weird Words, Part 12

definition of the word catawampus
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 1972 edition


I like the way this word sounds. I can’t recall ever using it in a conversation, but one day I might. You never know. Apparently, I’d be in good company. Read on.

I looked for it in my 1972 edition of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, but it was not listed. So my guess was that it is a fairly recent addition into the English language or what passes for it here in the United States. Who knows what the Brits think of our mangling of their fine language. Anyway, my guess turned out to be wrong. Story of my life.

The short definition for it is to confuse, perplex or fluster according to Looking at that just now, webster strikes me as a little bit odd. Could a person who makes great use of the Internet be called a webster? So I had to look up the name. It’s a boy’s name, English in origin, and as you might guess it means “weaver.”

If you ask Google if bumfuzzle is a real word, you get this from  To bumfuzzle is to confuse or fluster. Bumfuzzle is most often used in the dialect of the Southern United States. It is colloquial, meaning it is typically used in informal conversation. It is very similar to bamboozle, and may be derived from it. ran a story in October of 1999 in which it mentioned that Bill Clinton had said that the Republican budget passed by the House, which he intended to veto, “totally bumfuzzled” the American voters on the topic of whether or not Social Security funds would be tapped for current spending. I don’t recall what happened at that time, but I’d bet the answer was “yes.”

In any case, what Slate was reporting was actually from Chatterbox and they quoted a passage from the American Heritage Dictionary (not my edition, obviously):  The American Heritage dictionary says that bumfuzzle, apparently used chiefly in the southern United States, means “to confuse,” and probably derives from some combination of “bamboozle,” “fuddle,” and “fuzzy.”

Most sources agree that the word first came into use around 1900 (so why isn’t it in my 1972 edition?). Other sources link it to a British word, bumf (a shortened form of bumfodder meaning toilet paper). With that, Chatterbox went on to wonder whether or not Clinton was slyly using the word bumfuzzle to say that the Republican budget was just so much toilet paper.


This is another great weird word that I don’t recall having used in everyday conversation. As usual, I went straight to my dictionary first. It indicated that cattywampus is a variant of catawampus. Catawampus, it said, means cater-cornered or slantwise. It also listed as a second meaning evil or malicious. I’ve never had the impression that the word had anything to do with evil. Mostly, I’ve felt it meant off kilter (kilter comes from kelter which is an English dialect word meaning good health or good condition) or in disarray.

Once again, Internet to the rescue.

I liked what had to say about cattywampus:   The definition of cattywampus, often spelled catawampus, is not lined up or not arranged correctly, or diagonally. An example of something cattywampus are the positions of the items on the top of a coffee table after a two year old has been playing with them and moving them around. Or maybe they are acquainted with my husband.

But if you ask for the definition of catawampus instead of cattywampus, you get something quite different. According to the first definition is something that is fierce, savage, or destructive. The second definition is askew, awry, cater-cornered. Both are listed as dialectical.

Etymonline suggest that the word is a combination of two relatively archaic words: cater and wampish.

The first, cater, means to set or move diagonally. Wampish is a Scottish word that basically means to wriggle, twist or swerve about.

Cattywampus, in any of its spellings is older than Bumfuzzle by about half a century. It was first used as an adverb (catawampusly) around 1834 and then as a noun around 1843 where it appears as a name for an imaginary hobgoblin or fright, perhaps influenced by catamount.


My old and obviously out of date dictionary had this word in it also. It defines collywobbles as a pain in the bowels or stomach, a bellyache. My ancient dictionary suggests it might be from New Latin cholera morbus, the disease cholera, and influenced by colic and wobble.

In horses, colic describes a number of symptoms of distress usually centered in the horse’s intestines. When I had a horse, I had to call the vet out on a number of occasions when she colicked really badly. My dictionary defines colic this way: acute, paroxysmal pain in the abdomen caused by spasm, obstruction, or distention of any of the hollow viscera. That definition doesn’t really do justice to the kind of pain my horse exhibited.

Wobble is defined thusly: to move erratically from side to side; to tremble or quaver; to shake, as a voice; to waver or vacillate in one’s opinions, feelings, or the like.

I’m not really sure how putting colic and wobble together get you to the more accepted meaning (according to numerous online sources) of intense anxiety or nervousness particularly with stomach queasiness. I will say though that I have upon occasion been so frightened as to feel a looseness in my intestines that was not at all pleasant. So maybe it does track.

As for the origin of the word, most sources agree that it is a combination of colic and wobble. But has this to say: Colly is an English dialect word meaning coal dust. Blackbirds were hence known as colly birds. … Colly-wobbles could have derived from indisposition caused by breathing coal dust. It is more likely that this is a nonsense word formed from colic and wobble.

Ultimately, no one is really certain how the word came about.

So, here I sit, a bit bumfuzzled about the origins of the word collywobbles and wondering if this post has gone totally cattywampus.

Published by Dianne Lehmann

I'm a writer. But I'm also a wife and a mom to a couple of fur babies. You could call me a cook (but never a chef, I'm not that good) and provisioner as well. Laundress? Yeah. Probably. I design jewelry and I crochet. But mostly I love to write. I love words and how they sound. I love their meanings and origins. I love stringing them together. And of course, I love to read. Thinking about it just now, I realize that what I love most is life and the people around me with a special place set aside for my wonderful husband, our adorable dog and our inscrutable cat. It's the world and the people in it that fuels my writing. So thanks to you all for being the amazing beings that you are.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: