What does caterwauling mean?

Reading time: Less than 1 minute

Increase your vocabulary and you’ll make your writing much more precise. That’s why I provide a word of the week. Today’s word: caterwauling.

I think I’ve known since grade 5 that the term caterwauling means a long,wailing cry, usually heard on streets.

What I hadn’t realized is that it’s the perfect example of a word that can assume several different parts of speech. Some people believe that the very definition of a word also reveals its part of speech — a noun, verb, preposition or adjective. For example, to eat is always a verb.

While in some cases this is true (to eat IS always a verb) other words can play different roles in sentences. The word caterwaul (and its cousin, caterwauling) can be a verb, a noun or an adjective, depending on how it’s used.

In the Tom Rachman novel, The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, the author uses it as an adjective:

He entered a taxi, leaving her alone on the caterwauling street. 

Incredibly, I’d never before paid attention to the cat part of the word, which is meant to evoke the sound of a cat that’s either rutting or in pain. The word dates to the late 14th century, and is thought to come from Low German katerwaulen “cry like a cat,” or formed in English from cater, from Middle Dutch cater “tomcat” + Middle English waul “to yowl.”

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