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Alternative forms[edit]


cater- +‎ cousin, where cater- is of disputed origin. Liberman argues that this is a prefix meaning “crooked, angled, clumsy” – here meaning “distant, doubtful, deficient”, of North Germanic origin; compare cater-corner.[1] The sense “distant relation, doubtful relation” appears to be older than “intimate friend”; in 19th century Lancashire dialect, the sense is specifically “very distant and doubtful relation”.[1]

An etymology (proposed by Stephen Skinner, 1671) derives cater from French quatre (four) (hence “fourth cousin” – very distant cousin), from Latin. This is rejected as ridiculous by Samuel Johnson, as “absurdly impossible” by the OED, and “useless” by Liberman. Other etymologies derive from cater (caterer, provider of food), and derive this as “one with whom one shares food, messfellow”; this is judged by Liberman to be a folk etymology, though this analysis may have influenced the meaning of the term, leading to the “intimate friend” sense.[1]


cater-cousin (plural cater-cousins)

  1. Distant relative, especially a very distant relative, of doubtful relation.
  2. A close or good friend. An intimate. A bosom friend. An intimate friend who is not a blood relation. A person treated as a cousin (relative) who is not a blood relation
    • Sheila B. Blume. 2006. Cater-cousin, The Omnificent English Dictionary In Limerick Form [1]
      I am head over heels over Fred—
      My most intimate friend, so I've said;
      I have overheard buzzin's
      That we're cater-cousins.
      No matter—we're soon to be wed.
    • Thomas Ingoldsby (a.k.a. Richard Barnham). 1840. Mrs. Botherby's Story: The Leech of Folkestone. The Ingoldsby Legends, or Mirth and Madness, First Volume. London, Richard Bentley and Son, 1894. [2]
      The world talks loudly of your learning, your skill, and cunning in arts the most abstruse; nay, sooth to say, some look coldly on you therefore, and stickle not to aver that you are cater-cousin with Beelzebub himself.




  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Liberman, Anatoly. An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 2008, →ISBN, “Kitty-corner”, pp. 133–135
  • Knapp LM. Smollett and Johnson, Never Cater-Cousins? Modern Philology, Vol. 66, No. 2 (Nov., 1968), pp. 152-154.