Jewish World Review July 9, 2002 / 9 Tamuz, 5763
Editors of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate
Why doesn't "Arkansas'' rhyme with "Kansas''? ; "Catawampus"; "Jimmie Higgins work"
Why don't we pronounce "Arkansas'' so that it rhymes with "Kansas''?
_ C.D., Monument, Colo.
The proper nouns "Arkansas'' and "Kansas'' derive from European spellings of native American names for the people who inhabited these areas, the Acansa and the Kansa. The final "s'' of both state names was originally the plural morpheme "-s,'' added to indicate that the words referred to a group of people (as we might, for example, refer to the "Apaches'' or the "Hurons'').
The plural "-s'' is pronounced in English but not in French, and the French settlers of the Arkansas territory would not have pronounced it in the territory's name, though they used it in the spelling. It is an accident of history that the official name of the territory came to be spelled with that silent final "s.''
In the case of "Kansas,'' on the other hand, the final "s'' was for some reason pronounced, and so the name comes down to us with a spoken "s.''
Etymologists are not certain of the meanings of "Acansa'' and "Kansa'' in the native languages. The name "Acansa,'' however, was used by the Illinois tribe to refer to the Quapaw tribe. The Quapaw did not use the name themselves, and it is doubtful that it was a complimentary epithet. We do not have enough information to say what relationship there may have been between the words "Kansa'' and "Acansa'' in the early language of the Plains Indians.
Can you give me the definition and origin of the word "caterwampus'' or "cattywampus''? I'm not even sure how to spell it.
_ M.P., Minneapolis
"Catawampus,'' spelled in a variety of ways including your two, is an Americanism found most often in very informal or dialectal writing. The meaning of this colorful word is difficult to pin down, as it is used in a variety of contexts.
As a noun, "catawampus'' is defined by Webster's Third New International Dictionary as "an imaginary wild animal,'' synonymous with "bogey.'' In this sense, "catawampus'' probably derives from "catamount,'' which is short for "cat-a-mountain'' and which refers to several wild animals of the cat family.
Shifted in function to become an adjective, "catawampus'' is used to mean "fierce'' or "savage,'' sometimes appearing also in the adverbial form "catawampously'' or "catawamptiously.''
The famous abolitionist and writer Frederick Douglass, for example, used the word in an 1857 speech: "Where is the wealth and power that should make us fourteen millions take to our heels ... for fear of being catawamptiously chawed up?''
"Catawampus'' also means "askew,'' "awry'' or "catercorner.'' Thus, we have in our files this description of a request for directions: "A traveler asking his way in a swampy region of Iowa was told, 'Go in slaunchwise and keep on going catawampus,' which is equivalent to saying 'Go in slanticular and keep on a-goin' kinda cattycorner-like.' "
Otherwise applied, "catawampus'' can mean either "spiteful'' and "resentful,'' or "bewildered.'' As an example of the "resentful'' sense, we have this expression of disdain: "It sets me plumb catawampus ter hev ter (to have to) listen to them blacksmiths.'' And for the "bewildered'' sense, we have this example in which "catawampus'' is transformed into a verb: "May I be cat-a-wampussed if he won't swaller all the soap that old coot is a mind to give him!''
Finally, "catawampus'' has also sometimes been used as an interjection, as in this passage: "At her refusal he drank deeply. 'Catawampus! Kin lick my weight in wildcats, after that.' "
When I was a child, my father referred to work that was necessary but required no skill or intelligence as "Jimmie Higgins work.'' Who was Jimmie Higgins?
_ S.P., Springfield, Mass.
At the turn of the 20th century, "Jimmie Higgins'' was used to describe "a willing member who does the drudgery of a union.'' A Jimmie Higgins was a naive, unimportant member of a labor union, or of the Socialist Party. He usually had little prestige or power in the organization and consequently was relegated to performing drudgery. Most likely, the name was chosen arbitrarily and has no relation to any real person. In 1919, renowned social reformer Upton Sinclair used it as the title of a novel, but the term has now all but disappeared from our vocabularies.
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