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Words March 17

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Is you is or is you ain’t my wampus baby? Every so often, I hear from someone who’s fascinated by the name of the Conway High School athletic teams. This time it’s C. H. Ware: “My mom, who grew up in Georgia, often used the word ‘catty-wampus’ to refer to something that was off-center or out of kilter. ‘Catty-wampus’ would seem to be a reversal phrase for ‘Wampus Cat.’ But what is a Wampus Cat? I’ve exhausted every home reference for slang terms and had no luck at all with either catty-wampus or Wampus Cat. I did find in my dictionary the word ‘wampus,’ and its negative connotation led me to further confusion, as I’ve seen old newsreels with hollywood bathing beauties referred to as ‘wampus stars.’ ” The origin of Wampus Cat is shrouded in mystery. The most we can say for sure is that the Wampus Cat, like its cousin, the bearcat, is a mythical creature of great ferocity. Catty-wampus, on the other hand, can be found in standard dictionaries if not in slang dictionaries. It’s a variation of catawampus, which means “askew, awry” and “positioned diagonally, cater-cornered.” There’s no evidence of a connection with wampus cat, although the similarity of sound is suggestive. Random House says there may indeed be a direct link between catawampus and wampus (“a strange or objectionable person; lout”). The wampus stars Mr. Ware refers to were actually Wampas stars, it appears. Stuart Berg Flexner’s “Listening to America” says that in the 1920s, before there were Academy Awards, a group called the Western Association of Motion Picture Advertisers (W.A.M.P.A. or WAMPAs) began giving awards to promising new Hollywood stars, “the recipients being called Wampas babies … ” Clara Bow, Joan Crawford and Joan Blondell were Wampas babies. Columnist still in the dark: A local pundit continues to struggle with a certain phrase. And it continues to get the better of him. “But in their dismissal of America’s generosity in this case, critics got more than their facts wrong (in lieu of the subsequent outpouring of American contributions) …” He means in light of.

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