Friday, November 2, 2007


My mom was adopted back in 1909. She had a German and English (and a little Scot) heritage. And the people who adopted her were German primarily--and spoke German in the home. So although Mom had lost much of her ability to speak German by the time I was born, she knew many German words and phrases, and interspersed her speech with them in our home. Without knowing it, I came to school and into friendships, using phrases NOT well known and possibly never heard before. Of course, from my perspective as a child, it was rather amazing that everyone didn't know these words. But then, my friends and teachers would use words and phrases not known to me--yet I picked them up as I heard them again and again.

One of my many favorite family words was CATERWAUL. It just sounds interesting, doesn't it? And to some degree, I think it sounds a bit "like" what it means (although that might come from the way, tone, and times my mother incorporated the word into what she was saying):

cat·er·waul intr.v. cat·er·wauled , cat·er·waul·ing , cat·er·wauls

To cry or screech like a cat in heat.
To make a shrill, discordant sound.
To have a noisy argument.

A shrill, discordant sound.

ETYMOLOGY: Middle English *caterwawlen : *cater, tomcat; akin to Low German kater + wawlen, wrawlen, to yowl ( ultimately of imitative origin)

As an example of how this was used in my home, was when I, the child, whined with that high-pitched little girl's whine, (which my father said was the MOST irritating sound) wanting something, or not wanting to do some chore. Mom would say, "Stop that caterwauling and just go do it." Or "Stop that caterwauling, it's not going to change a thing." Certainly you can see, it was not employed in any manner that would make it a fun word. Yet, I have to say, even as a kid, I thought it was an interesting word. Just nothing quite like it in English (well, except the English-ization of this German word).

And as the Bible points out, the sins of the father go on for seven generations--so too the speech of the house, falls to the next and next and next. . . generation with euphemisms, catch phrases, and those words thrown in liberally from the family's heritage of Greek, Hebrew, Italian, Spanish, German, Swedish, etc.(hand gestures and body language added for flavor and color as needed). Such is, after-all, the melting pot that is America.

I think our everyday speech needs some revitalizing. The phrases and such that are making it today, such as using the word cool for hot, or just saying "word" with attitude, are these really an expression of YOUR heritage--or are you just imitating what's being said by others to whom it IS their unique expression? Well, just stop that caterwauling, and try adding in some of your family's linguistic heritage whenever you can. It will add flavor to all our lives, if we celebrate our roots through our speech.


Jen of A2eatwrite said...

One of my students used the moniker Beatricecaterwaul for her e-mail address after Much Ado about Nothing... it's a great word!

Wholly Burble said...

Glad you enjoyed it--me too :-) Now to find a place to employ it (hehe).