Bill Long 12/27/05
A Collection by Maximillian Schele de Vere (1820-1898)
One might think that a Swede would be the last person in the world to write a book on Americanisms. But Schele de Vere (SdV) came to America in 1843 after receiving a doctorate from Berlin in 1841. He became a professor of modern languages (a new field in itself) at Thomas Jefferson's fledgling venture in Charlottesville, becoming the first person to realize Jefferson's dream of offering Anglo-Saxon as a language at the UVA. He was a pioneer in this country of the field of comparative philology. I have seen three different dates for the publication of Americanisms (1871, 1872, 1873) and so, not needing to get to the bottom of that one, I will say that this large work, from the early 1870s, put him near the top of the list of those early philologists in this country dedicated to documenting the regional nature of American speech. This essay will point to a few words that he defines for us, with examples he gives. You may or may not want to dip into his work; it is a pleasant diversion from duties which sometimes seem more pressing.
No, there is no apostrophe, and the sense of the verb I want to explore is not to sing or to speak in one's particular jargon. SdV points to an American sense of the word meaning "to turn over". He quotes an earlier writer as follows: "In carpentry, (it) signifies to turn, as when a piece of timber comes the wrong way, they say, 'Cant it, that is, turn it about.'" We have a cant-hook today, which I have reproduced for you here--it is nothing
other than an iron hook attached to the end of a wooden lever by which heavy weights (such as timber) can be canted over and moved.
So, what is the word? I have lived nearly 54 years and I don't know it. Let's march through the confusion briefly. The modern dictionaries (such as Webster's Collegiate, 11th ed.) have it as catty-corner which is defined as "kitty-corner." When I looked up "kitty-corner" it says it may also be "catty-corner" or "cater-corner" and it means "in a diagonal or oblique position." The OED doesn't have "kitty-corner" or even "catty-corner" as a separate entry, but puts all its eggs into "cater-corner" or "catercorner" or "cater-cornered." It gives no clue as to the origin of the term, but the first usage, from 1838 has it as "catty-cornered" (when two people are compelled to share a bed, they lie 'catty-cornered.') Not until 1843 was it attested as "cater-cornered," though the spelling in that attestation is "katterkorner'd": "With directions how...to secure by two strings diagonally fastened, or as he better understood it--'katterkorner'd-like.'" The OED doesn't attest the spelling of the word as "cater-cornered" until 1878. One of the attestations even has it as "cat-a-cornered," which seems to bring felines swimming into our view in an unhelpful manner.
But SdV wrote several years before 1878, and his entry in Americanisms is listed as "cater-cornered." He says the following about it. It is "a very common term in Virginia and the South, is evidently derived from the French quatre, as in "Cater," the four of dice, etc." He points to an earlier dictionary where the term was used as "cater-cross," e.g., "You must go 'cater-cross' the field." Thus, at least from SdV, the signification is that by going diagonally, you "quarter" something. This has an air of plausibility, don't you think?
It isn't unusual that a 19th century dictionary would have this word. We know it as a little piece of tobacco which SdV informs us was pronounced chew in England but had retained its regional pronunciation as chaw, especially in the South. I am citing it from SdV for two reasons. First he defines it as a "quid of tobacco," and I was fascinated by his use of the word "quid," which has dropped out of our speech today. "Quid" is the Latin word for "anything, what, something," and its original significantion is nicely captured by Benjamin Jowett in his translation of Plato: "When I do not know the 'quid' of anything how can I know the 'quale'? (the nature of its properties). That is, 'if I don't know what I am looking for, how can I tell you what its qualities are?' But quid also had a specialized meaning, which I didn't know until today, having to do with a section of the Democratic-Republican Party in the Jefferson/Madison era. "He belonged to the third party, the quiddists or quids, being that tertium quid...which had no name, but was really an anti-Madison movement."
But, as we have also seen, the word quid as a noun can mean a piece of something, usually tobacco, though it can be used figuratively as in this 1805 quotation: "I chewed my quid of bitterness."
But let's get back to chaw, which got us started down this road. SdV says that he received a letter from a correspondent (Hugh Blair Grigsby, a fellow Virginian) who told the following story. "The late eloquent Watkins Leigh (Virginia lawyer and Senator in the mid-1830s) was asked by a friend what he thought of James Buchanan (later to be President), and answered, that he had one serious objection to him, and when pressed to name it, said that once, when he and Mr. Buchanan were sitting together in the US Senate, the latter asked Leigh for a chew of tobacco instead of a chaw." Of such mighty things the opinions of men are formed.
I was only going to write one on SdV, but I think a second is warranted.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long