Tuesday, February 13, 2007


Donder op!

My brother and his family were in town last weekend for Simon's birthday. We were having dinner at my parents' place, the adults lingering over dinner while the children played noisily nearby, and it was a moment of perfect contentment.

My brother was telling us about one day a few weeks ago, he was sitting in his car when a man with a very thick Dutch accent approached him and asked my brother if he knew what the word on his car licence plate meant (he has our family surname, Donders, on his personalized plate.) Caught off guard by the gentleman's agitation, my brother replied that to his knowledge it means "thunder" in Dutch. The man said that in fact, it was a very offensive word to someone from South Africa, and walked off in a huff.

In my family mythology, we know that donder means thunder (my dad was a professional percussionist when I was growing up. Isn't Lou Thunder a great stage name for a drummer?), and of course I have subjected you more than once to the Donder / Donner reindeer debate.

But "donder" as offensive? I had to do more research. My first stop was an e-mail to the witty and clever Tertia, who writes the blog So Close and happens to be the only person I "know" who lives in South Africa. . (Tertia and I are both haunted the message boards at IVF Connections, back in the day.) She passed me to her husband Marko, who wrote:

Donder in dutch means thunder as you have said, this is the literal meaning of the word. But it is also used loosely as a slang word for beating someone up. It is not really a very harsh swear word and should not be offensive to others unless they are very sensitive.

Curious, I kept searching the Internet, and found a few more interesting tidbits. From my general reading, to 'donder' someone means to rough them up, and the expresion 'donder op' is a general expletive that can range in meaning from 'get out of here' to 'fuck off'.

From The Afrikaans Challenge - translating to English:

'Donder' is another very useful word, used as an all-purpose swearword, which again has no good English translation. Used as a verb, it can express any degree of roughing up. As a noun, it is a pejorative, as they politely say in dictionaries, to mean whatever you want it to mean.

Cool! All this time, I thought I was benignly named after a force of nature, or even one of Santa's reindeer, but in fact, each time I say my name it's a pejorative. If only I had known that in high school, I may have been less marginalized. (Stop snickering. I'm sure the popular kids would have been fascinated to be cornered at a school dance or party or other social event while I lectured to them about the origins and alternate meanings of my family name. They wouldn't have thought me even more strange than they already did, I'm sure of it.)

And finally, when I came across this entry, I knew it was time to stop searching. I had found the One True Meaning of my name.

From Allwords.com:

donder (slang)
Etymology: Afrikaans, from Dutch
'donderen': to swear or bully
dondered, dondering 1. To beat up or thrash someone.
1. A scoundrel; a rogue.

Being a scoundrel and a rogue is so very much cooler than being named after one of Santa's reindeer, don't you think? And to think, for 37 years I've been blissfully oblivious to this secret and titillating meaning of my name. Some day, my boys are going to thank me for burdening them with those hyphenated surnames!