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Sciapodous

22 Mar 2017

 “Why Grandma, your big feet are the only thing that looks different.” (Image: Public domain) 

 

Last week on Twitter, we posted this: 

 

And last week on the blog, we wrote about this:

 

And as odd as it might sound, they have something in common. 

 

First of all, both words have at their centres the Greek word for “shadow”, skia (for reasons that we’ll come to in a moment). Secondly, they both refer to groups or races of people presumed by the Ancient Greeks to inhabit two extreme regions of the earth. But while the periscian inhabitants of the poles turned out to indeed exist, the legendary people that the term sciapodous alludes to are, thankfully, the stuff of legend. 

 

A quick recap, then: as we explained last week, the term periscian literally describes someone whose shadow moves all the way around them throughout the day, as on a sundial. It was coined by an Ancient Greek geographer named Posidonius to refer to the (at the time only theoretical) inhabitants of the far north, who live at such an extreme latitude that at the height of summer must deal with twenty-four hours of sunlight. 

 

Oppositely, the adjective sciapodous derives from the name the Greeks used for the legendary inhabitants of the unbearably hot and sun-scorched deserts of Africa and the Indian subcontinent: the Sciapodes. 

 

Sciapodes literally means “shadow-feet”, and brings together the Greek skia, “shadow”, with the same Greek word for “foot”, pous, found at the root of words like tripod, podiatry and podium. So what does that have to do with having big feet—or, for that matter, with living in blisteringly hot climates? Well, let’s leave it to Pliny the Elder to explain. 

 

In part of his epic reference work Natural History, the Roman scholar Pliny describes a race of people an early Greek historian named Ctesias believed lived in India:

 

He [Ctesias] also speaks of another race of men, who are known as Monocoli, who have only one leg but are able to leap with surprising agility. The same people are also called Sciapodae, because they are in the habit of lying on their backs, during the time of the extreme heat, and protect themselves from the sun by the shade of their feet. These people, he says, dwell not very far from Troglodytae; to the west of whom again there is a tribe who are without necks, and have eyes in their shoulders.

Pliny the Elder, Natural History (VII/2, c. 78 AD)

 

As anthropological descriptions go, it’s hardly the most reliable of accounts. But the legendary one-huge-footed Sciapodes are at the root of the word sciapodious, which first appeared in English in the early 1700s. Since then, it’s hardly been the most widely-use of words (hence its appearance here on HH), but kudos to the editors of the Fremont, California Argus, who ran this headline in 1977:

 

WANTED: SCIAPODOUS GRAPE-CRUSHER

 

 

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