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Word of the day; tegenvoeter (antipode)

My digital friend, Frans Hertoghs, the TEGENVOETER (the antipode, the opposite footer) from down under far away beautiful New Zealand… you may know who I mean… Frans, the guy who writes interesting columns about the Dutch language and reads them on the radio (if you wish he’ll put you on his mailing list and you’ll receive his weekly column, just send a mail to Frans Hertoghs… well, this brand-new New Zealander originating from the south of the Netherlands invited me to write a bimonthly column on Dutch words for a magazine called Holland Focus which is partly in English and partly in Dutch. 

(Hijg, hijg, pant, pant, what a long opening…)

tegenvoeterWell, I’m truly honoured and at the same time mightily pleased to hear that people on the other side of the planet are interested in the Dutch language. I love the word TEGENVOETER which is a literal translation of the Latin ‘antipodes’ literally ‘having the feet opposite’. It goes without saying that the up-above people are TEGENVOETERS too in the eyes of the down-unders.

So I was wondering, when was this word invented and when did it make its entrance into the Dutch language? Ha, you say, simple, after the discovery of New Holland (which is now Australia) and New Zealand. It must be so because the Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘antipodes’ as follows: ‘those who dwell directly opposite to each other on the globe, so that the soles of their feet are as it were planted against each other; esp. those who occupy this position in regard to us’.

But no, it’s not that simple. I always thought that I was the antipode of a New Zealander, but the atlas proves me wrong. The antipodes of Australia are in the North Atlantic Ocean and parts of Spain, Portugal, and Morocco are antipodal to New Zealand.

What a disillusion, Frans. We are not antipodal at all. If I were to dig a tunnel through the earth, I’d land in water. The word was invented long before humans knew that there was a country with Maori’s. In English the word ‘antipodes’ was recorded for the first time in about 1398 in a translation from a latin text. It reads ‘Byȝonde [in Ethiopia] ben þe Antipodes, men þat hauen here feet aȝens our feet’ (source OED). And it means: ‘Far away in Ethiopia there are the Antipodes, men that have their feet against our feet.’

In the Middle Ages people believed that there were people living on the opposite side of the earth with their feet pointing upward. The Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle said something of the kind and, so these medieval people thought, it had to be true. Everything down there had to be ‘inverted’ in some way.

Medieval illustrations show lots of strange creatures. The Dutch poet and scholar Jacob van Maerlant (ca. 1230 – ca. 1300) wrote about them in his early encyclopedia called ‘Der Naturen Bloeme’ (a free translation of ‘De natura rerum’, a natural history) in his prologue under the heading of humans.

He wrote:
Ander volc so wont dar me
die de hande hebben verkert;
ende andie voete, als men ons lert,
hebben si theen twewarf viere.

Volc esserre van vremder manire
dien de voeten stan verkert.

(Other people live there,
whose hands are turned around;
and on their feet, so they teach us,
they have twice four toes.
People there are of strange modes
Whose feet are turned around.)