I’ve used the term “kitty corner” for as long as I can remember. It refers to when something is diagonally across from something else, usually in the context of a physical location somewhere. The grocery store is kitty corner from the coffee shop. Using my little makeshift diagram below, the blue cat is kitty corner from the orange tabby (and vice versa). But what does this phrase even have to do with cats in the first place? Nothing at all, actually. Doggone it, down the rabbit hole we go…

Kitty corner

As you know, the English language is filled with innumerable idioms that are so far removed from their origins. We talk about champing at the bit and how we need to batten down the hatches with no real knowledge of their equestrian and nautical references, respectively. But “kitty corner” must have some relation to our feline friends, right?

Not really. It’s really just a case of “it kind of sounds like that, so let’s use it.”

Let’s take half a step back. While “kitty corner” is perhaps the most common form of the phrase today, you may also encounter catty corner or caddy corner, as well as kit-a-corner and cat-a-corner. I’ve always written “kitty corner” without hyphens, but the hyphenated form is perfectly acceptable too. Whatever the case, it refers to objects that are diagonally across from one another.

To understand how this turn of phrase came to be, we must trace back its origin one step at a time. Let’s start at the beginning.

  1. The English came to know the French word quatre, meaning four, for the side of dice with four pips. The four dots are arranged in a square with each dot taking up a corner.
  2. “Cater” (not in reference to food service) is an anglicized version of the French word quatre. This is also how we came to the word “quarter” in English, meaning 1/4th.
  3. In time, “cater” came to mean “to set or move diagonally” in an English dialect.
  4. This paved the way for related terms like caterways and caterwise, which had the same “diagonal” meaning.
  5. These terms evolved to become cater-corner.
  6. At some point, the connection to the French was lost and people thought “cater” sounded like it had something to do with cats. And then they got creative.
  7. Catty-corner probably showed up first, followed by “kitty corner” some time in the mid-19th century.

English is a language that is derived from and inspired by a number of other languages. “Kindergarten” comes from German; it literally translates as children garden. That probably explains why “kindergarden” is a common misspelling. French is another huge influence, and we’re not just talking about foyers and hors d’oeuvres either.

Sometimes, we’re talking about feisty felines on street corners playing with dice. Apparently.