A listener in Brazil challenges Martha’s pronunciation of the odd English word antipodes. Their email exchange leads Martha to muse about a favorite collection of poems, where she first encountered this word.

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Recently on our show, I made a linguistic boo-boo. Did you catch it?

We were talking about the word podium. A listener named Joel called to say that the word “podium” originally denoted something you stand on. But more and more, people are using it to mean something you “stand behind.” Joel was none too happy about that.

I told him he was right about the roots of the word “podium,” even though its meaning has changed.

    M: I feel your pain Joel. Absolutely, podium comes from ultimately from a Greek word meaning “foot.”

    G: Yeah, but that doesn’t mean —

    M: Hear me out. Hear me out! It’s like podiatrist, the doctor who looks after your feet. It’s like antipodes, the people on the other side of the world from us, exactly. There’s a big old foot in that word.

    J: There sure is!

Did you catch my mistake? One of our listeners in Brazil did. Luciano emailed from Sao Paolo to say I’d mispronounced that word for people on the other side of world. A-n-t-i-p-o-d-e-s, he wrote, isn’t pronounced “ANN-ti-poads.” It’s “ann-TIP-uh-dees.”

He’s right! “Ann-TIP-uh-dees” means, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it: “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.”

It’s a poetic word, “ann-TIP-uh-dees,” those Greek roots conjuring an image of people standing sole to sole, yet separated by an entire planet. The English word “ann-TIP-uh-dees” was originally plural in form, referring to lots of people. The singular version, “ANN-tih-poad,” came only later, by a process linguists call back-formation.

In any case, my only excuse for mispronouncing the word is this: In elementary school, I’d seen that singular form, “ANN-tih-pode,” and just assumed that the plural would naturally be “ANN-ti-podes.”

You may be wondering why an elementary-school kid would run into the word “antipode” at all.

Let me tell you about a book of poems that I just love. It’s “Grooks” by Piet Hein. If you’re not familiar with it, you’re in for a treat.

Hein was a 20th-century Danish scientist, poet, and designer. He was always trying to bridge the gap between art and science, which is probably why he counted among his close friends both Albert Einstein and Charlie Chaplin.

He also wrote short, insightful poems in Danish, English, and another passion of his, Esperanto.

Here’s a pithy poem called “Problems”:

    Problems worthy of attack
    Prove their worth
    By hitting back.

Nuff said.

Here’s one that he called “A Psychological Tip”:

    Whenever you’re called on to make up your mind,
    And you’re hampered by not having any,
    The best way to solve the dilemma, you’ll find,
    Is simply by spinning a penny.
    No – not so that chance shall decide the affair
    While you’re passively standing there moping;
    But the moment the penny is up in the air,
    You suddenly know what you’re hoping.

I tell you, I’ve used that tip more times than I can count.

And finally, the poem that introduced me to the word “antipode.”

    It will steadily shrink,
    our earthly abode,
    until antipode stands
    upon antipode.

    Then, soles together,
    the planet gone,
    we’ll know the ground
    that we rest upon.

The book, again, is called “Grooks” by Piet Hein. Here are some more examples of his poems.

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