Skip to content

Catawampus

November 15, 2011

I am inordinately fond of etymologies, particularly etymological puns.

One of my favorites is in Genesis, when the serpent is introduced to Adam and Eve. Most translations say, correctly, that the woman and the man were both naked but unashamed, but totally miss the pun in the next line, where it says that the snake was the most cunning of all the animals that YHWH had made. The word “naked” (עָרוֹם) literally means smooth, as in unclothed skin; spelled almost exactly the same is עָרוּם, which is usually translated “cunning” but literally means smooth in the metaphorical sense, the way we would call someone “a smooth operator.” Adam and Eve were smooth, but the snake was smoother. Alas, some puns don’t translate very well.

I love how a “clue”—our key to solving difficult puzzle—comes from “clew,” a ball of yarn, harkening directly back to the story of Theseus and the Minotaur. (Ariadne, daughter of King Minos, gave Theseus a ball of red yarn to help him find his way out of the labyrinth, only to have Theseus abandon her on the island of Naxos so he could marry her sister Phaedra instead. Such gratitude!)

I love how our English word “clew” comes from a Proto-Germanic word meaning “ball,” which comes from a prefix meaning “to conglomerate,” and is akin to the Old English word for “clay”—and is similar to the Ancient Greek γλία and the Latin glūs (both meaning “glue”).

I love how our word “key” comes from the Old English cǣġ, meaning “key, solution, experiment.” I like that the French words for “key” (clé) and “nail” (clou) both come from the Latin clāvis, which meant key, which came from clāvus, which meant nail, because the first keys were long nail-like hooks that were passed though a keyhole to catch the bolt on the other side.

But maybe my favorite etymology, and perhaps pun, is the phrase found right at the start of the Bible: “In the Beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. But the earth became tohu va-bohu (תֹ֙הוּ֙ וָבֹ֔הוּ) and darkness came over the face of the Deep—yet the Spirit of God was brooding over the surface of the waters.” Tohu va-bohu is usually translated something like “formless and void.” The closest English rendering of the Hebrew, both in meaning and in the playfulness of the words, might be “topsy-turvy”—and every other time the phrase is used in the Bible, it describes a scene of ruination and desolation. In Hebrew Myths: The Book of Genesis (1963), Robert Graves and Raphael Patai pointed out the linguistic connection between tohu, or chaos; tehom, the word here translated “the Deep”; and the Babylonian goddess Tiamat:

What “Tohu” and “Bohu” originally meant is disputed. But add the suffix m to Tohu (thw) and it becomes Tehom (thwm), the Biblical name for a primitive sea-monster. Tehom, in the plural, becomes Tehomot (thwmwt). With the same suffixes, Bohu becomes Behom and Behomot (bhwmwt), a variant form of Job’s Behemoth, the dry-land counterpart of the sea-monster Leviathan. Leviathan cannot be easily distinguished from Rahab, Tannin, Nahash, or any other mythical creatures that personify water. The story underlying Genesis 1:2 may therefore be that the world in its primeval state consisted of a sea-monster Tohu and a land-monster Bohu. If so, Tohu’s identity with Tehomot, and Bohu’s with Behemoth, has been suppressed for doctrinal reasons….Moreover, that tehom never takes the definite article in Hebrew proves it to have once been a proper name, like Tiamat. Tehomot, then, is the Hebrew equivalent of Mother Tiamat, beloved by the God Apsu.

The phrase tohu va-bohu occurs only here in Genesis and in Jeremiah 4:23-26 (“I looked at the earth—it was tohu va-bohu. I looked to the heavens—their light was gone. I looked to the mountains—they quaked, and the hills swayed back and forth. I looked—I saw no one. Nothing! All the birds had flown away. I looked—the fertile land was desert. All its towns laid waste before YHWH, before God’s fierce wrath”), though it’s almost used in Isaiah 34:10-11 (“Generation after generation it will lie waste, and it will be impassable forever. The jackdaw and the desert owl will possess it; the great owl and the raven will nest there. YHWH will stretch out over Edom the measuring line of tohu and the plumb line of bohu”).

Clearly this isn’t formlessness and voidness (yes, I just made up that word). It’s chaos and destruction. Tohu is elsewhere used to describe something worthless or useless—“empty” in the figurative sense, or perhaps empty of inhabitants, but not empty as in a vacuum.

Which brings me to my Word of the Day: catawampus, which is another fine way to render tohu va-bohu. Also spelled catawampous, cattywampus, catiwampus, and, as I learned it, caterwompus. It means “off-kilter,” “askew,” or more broadly, “all messed up.”

“Cater” means “diagonally,” from the French quatre, meaning “four (cornered).” This in turn comes from the Indo-European root kwetwer– (four), which also gave us four, square, cadre, quadrant, and quarantine (literally, period of forty days). “Wompus” is related to the Scottish “wampish,” a verb that means “to wriggle, twist, or swerve about.” Or, says etymonline.com, perhaps it is

simply the sort of jocular pseudo-classical formation popular in the slang of those times, with the first element suggesting Gk. kata-. Earliest use seems to be in adverbial form, catawampusly (1834), expressing no certain meaning but adding intensity to the action: ‘utterly, completely; with avidity, fiercely, eagerly.’ It appears as a noun from 1843, as a name for an imaginary hobgoblin or fright, perhaps from influence of catamount. The adjective is attested from the 1840s as an intensive, but this is only in British lampoons of American speech and might not be authentic. It was used in the US by 1864 in a sense of ‘askew, awry, wrong’ and by 1873 (noted as a peculiarity of North Carolina speech) as ‘in a diagonal position, on a bias, crooked.’

I just can’t get enough of this stuff.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. November 15, 2011 5:40 pm

    I love how you bring us through a thread of clues first before getting to one of the first and your “favorite etymology, and perhaps pun” that begins the Hebrew Bible. Then you bring us to our “catawampus.”

    The OED dictionary editor calls it, “A high-sounding word with no very definite meaning.”

    I see in The Inclusive Bible: The First Egalitarian Translation you did talk of “topsy turvy” as being close to the Hebrew.

    May I suggest that “catawampus” is close to the LXX translators’ Greek ἀκατασκεύαστος (or, a-kata-skeuastos ), which is as far as anyone knows a neologism also. It certainly plays well against Aristotle’s mere binary of κατα-σκευαστικός VS ἀνα-σκευαστικός (see the Rhetoric 1403a).

    In looking around a little, I found what I think may be just a one of the most superb (adverbial) uses ever of the now-English word, from a speech Frederick Douglass spoke in 1857:

    There is something cowardly in the idea of disunion. Where is the wealth and power that should make us fourteen millions take to our heels before three hundred thousand slaveholders for fear of being catawamptiously chawed up?

  2. November 15, 2011 5:45 pm

    I always liked that word “catawampus”. Words are so interesting – just like browsing the mystery section in the library

  3. November 15, 2011 6:17 pm

    I love this post. I also love the corresponding section in (Babylonian Talmud) Tractate Chagigah 12a, which begins what ultimately will become the most mystical section of Talmud, dancing around the mysteries of creation and Ezekiel’s chariot. Here is what it says in the Soncino translation:

    Rab Judah further said that Rab said: Ten things were created the first day, and they are as follows: heaven and earth, Tohu [chaos], Bohu [desolation], light and darkness, wind and water, the measure of day and the measure of night. Heaven and earth, for it is written: In the beginning God created heaven and earth. Tohu and Bohu, for it is written: And the earth was Tohu and Bohu. Light and darkness: darkness, for it is written: And darkness was upon the face of the deep; light, for it is written: And God said, Let there be light. Wind and water, for it is written: And the wind of God hovered over the face of the waters. The measure of day and the measure of night, for it is written: And there was evening and there was morning, one day. It is taught: Tohu is a green line that encompasses the whole world, out of which darkness proceeds, for it is said: He made darkness His hiding-place round about Him. Bohu, this means the slimy stones that are sunk in the deep, out of which the waters proceed, for it is said: And he shall stretch over it the line of confusion [Tohu] and the plummet of emptiness [Bohu].

    A thin green line and slimy stones in the deep. We can sense we are at the precipice of the Talmud switching to surreality.

  4. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    November 16, 2011 12:15 am

    What fun! It sounds a bit like mugwumps caterwauling, a catawumpus!

  5. November 16, 2011 10:32 am

    I find the examination of the etymology of tohu and bohu interesting but the section quoted from Graves and Patai looks an awful lot like a just-so story.

    The claim that Tehowm is a sea-monster, as evinced by its lack of a definite article, seems far less likely than that it is a named place (like France or Hell, neither of which require a definite article). Now, perhaps there’s a connection between Tehowm and Tiamat. However, I become suspicious of this when an etymology is conjured up for bohu that links it to Behemoth which is both incorrectly described as a land counterpart to the various sea monsters (it shows up in Job both on land and in the water, specifically swamps and streams, prompting the occasional suggestion that Behemoth is a hippo, a good suggestion if it lacked an enormous tail) and doesn’t explain why other possible links, like one to behemah, large animals, should be ignored.

    Finally, I find the suggestion that Genesis 1 was drawn from a story with a land and sea monster to require an exceptional degree of gymnastics. Why is a single phrase with the names (or altered names) of the monsters retained when the story no longer has any place for them? Why especially if these monsters are also be suppressed for doctrinal reasons? It seems that somewhere in there is an assumption that the first scribe to record Genesis was both censorious and stupid.

    All of this to say: do we have other evidence for this? Might tohu and bohu have parallels in other nearby languages? Might these transformations have occurred elsewhere and still be visible there but moved piecemeal over into Hebrew which then obscures their relationships? Essentially, is there a line of evidence for this hypothesis that doesn’t require so much interpolation?

Trackbacks

  1. Biblical Studies Carnival 69 (November 2011) | Remnant of Giants
  2. The Creation (of the Translation) of “Eve” « BLT

Leave a Reply

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

WordPress.com Logo

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

Twitter picture

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

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: