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Anagrams = ars magna
Анаграммы = великое искусство (лат.)
(анаграмма слова anagrams,
переставленные буквы которого
превратились в словосочетание
ars magnaвеликое искусство)

Have you ever played word games? People have been playing with words and letters since ancient times. Words seem to have some mystical power. For most people words are units of language which help to express ideas, deliver messages, and communicate. As a result, we talk and write using different words. But for other people words can be an object of serious scientific study, a tool in some occult doctrines, or a source of entertainment. These people may be linguists, cabbalists, poets and writers. Of course, students and teachers of foreign languages are on the list of those who deal with words. What types of unusual words and word games do you know?

Symmetry by the Letters

A palindrome is a word, phrase, number or any other sequence of units (like a strand of DNA) which has the property of reading the same in either direction. The word “palindrome” comes from the Greek words palin (“back”) and dromos (“racecourse”). Writing literature in palindromes is an example of constrained writing, which often requires the writer to use certain forms and rules, for example, the rule of reading words the same forward and backward.

The ancient Greeks admired palindromes as far back as 2 thousand years ago. They often put Niyon anomhmata mh monan oyin: (“Nipson anomemata me monan opsin”) on fountains, meaning “Wash the sin as well as the face”. Can you read this Greek palindrome backward?

The Latin palindrome Sator Arepo Tenet Opera Rotas (roughly “The farmer by his labour keeps the wheels to the plough”) is remarkable for the fact that it reproduces itself also if one forms a word from the first letters, then the second letters and so forth. Hence it can also be arranged into a square which can be read either horizontally or vertically:

S  A  T  O  R

A  R  E  P  O

T  E  N  E  T

O  P  E  R  A

R  O  T  A  S

Russian palindromes can be easily traced by any inquisitive student, for example, words “наган, шалаш, око, кок”. Some Russian poets were fond of writing palindromes. All Russian children know a phrase “А роза упала на лапу Азора”, (“And the rose fell upon Azor’s paw”) attributed to the famous poet Afanasy Fet.

Palindromes occur in many western languages, but they are particularly prevalent in English due to the wide variety and frequent reversal of letter pairs within words.

Examples include:

  • Campus motto: Bottoms up, Mac!

  • Live Evil (used as an album title by, amongst others, the metal band Black Sabbath and jazz trumpeter Miles Davis)

  • redivider (the longest ‘natural’ palindrome in English)

  • Malayalam (language spoken in Kerala, India)

  • tattarrattat, the longest palindrome in the Oxford English Dictionary, coined by James Joyce in Ulysses for a knock on the door

  • Madam, I’m Adam.

  • Dennis and Edna sinned.

  • Mr. Owl ate my metal worm.

  • Never odd or even.

  • Radar (acronym from RAdio Detection And Ranging)

  • Ten animals I slam in a net.

  • Was it a cat I saw?

  • A Man, a plan, a canal - Panama! (Leigh Mercer)

  • Too far, Edna, we wander afoot. (Bill Bryson)

  • Yawn! Madonna fan? No damn way! (Sean Penn)

  • Norma is as selfless as I am, Ron. (W.H. Auden)

  • Are we not drawn onward, we few, drawn onward to new era? (Bill Bryson)

  • “Rats live on no evil star” (from the novel Swords of Lankhmar by Fritz Leiber)

  • “On a clover, if alive, erupts a vast, pure evil: a fire volcano”

  • “Pull up if I pull up”.

  • “Rise to vote sir”.

  • Damn Mad!

  • A Toyota’s a Toyota.

  • Race fast, safe car.

  • Ma is as selfless as I am.

Symmetry by the Words

Some palindromes use words as units rather than letters. They Might Be Giants (a famous rock group of the 1990s) released a single called I Palindrome I (on the album Apollo 18), the lyrics of which include the word palindrome: “Son I am able,” she said, “though you scare me.” “Watch,” said I, “beloved,” I said, “watch me scare you though.” Said she, “able am I, Son.”

Other examples:

  • You can cage a swallow, can’t you, but you can’t swallow a cage, can you?

  • Fall leaves as soon as leaves fall.

Symmetry by the Lines

Still other palindromes take the line as the unit. The poem Doppelganger, composed by James A. Lindon, is such a palindrome.


Entering the lonely house with my wife
I saw him for the first time
Peering furtively from behind a bush –
Blackness that moved,
A shape amid the shadows,
A momentary glimpse of gleaming eyes
Revealed in the ragged moon.
A closer look (he seemed to turn) might have
Put him to flight forever –
I dared not
(For reasons that I failed to understand),
Though I knew I should act at once.
I puzzled over it, hiding alone,
Watching the woman as she neared the gate.
He came, and I saw him crouching
Night after night.
Night after night
He came, and I saw him crouching,
Watching the woman as she neared the gate.
I puzzled over it, hiding alone –
Though I knew I should act at once,
For reasons that I failed to understand
I dared not
Put him to flight forever.
A closer look (he seemed to turn) might have
Revealed in the ragged moon.
A momentary glimpse of gleaming eyes
A shape amid the shadows,
Blackness that moved.
Peering furtively from behind a bush,
I saw him for the first time,
Entering the lonely house with my wife.

An anagram is a rearrangement of the letters of a word or words to make another word or other words. A famous Latin anagram was an answer made out of Pilate’s question to Jesus. The question was Quid est veritas? [What is truth?], and the rearranged answer Est vir qui ad est [it is the man who is here]. Summing up, a palindrome is a type of anagram that reads the same backward as forward.

An ambigram, also known as an inversion, is a graphical figure that spells out a word not only in its form as presented, but also in another direction or orientation. This is typically when viewed as a mirror-image or when rotated through 180 degrees. The word usually is not a palindrome, although it may be. Sometimes the word spelled out from the alternate direction may be a different one, but for mirror-image ambigrams the canonical form spells out the same word.

Here is a mirror-image ambigram displayed in Dan Brown’s book “Angels and Demons”. You can see the name of a powerful underground organization “Illuminati”.

There are plenty of different ambigrams created centuries ago as symbols of secret organizations:

Some other ambigrams were created in our time:

A mirror-image ambigram for the word “Wiki”

Ambigram logos
Ambigrams are sometimes used as logos. Notable examples include:
NASA “Worm” logo, used from 1975–1997

Sun Microsystems Logo

Voice of America broadcasting

ABBA (a famous group of the 1970s)

A Card game “Triology”

To this extent, all anagrams, palindromes, ambigrams are closely connected with a word play.

Word play is a literary technique in which the nature of the words becomes part of the subject of the work. Puns (каламбуры), obscure words and meanings, clever rhetorical excursions, oddly formed sentences, and telling character names are also common examples of word play.

A pun (also known as paronomasia) is a deliberate confusion of similar-sounding words or phrases for rhetorical effect, whether humorous or serious. Humor is more commonly the intent of puns in recent times, but formerly the serious pun was an important and standard rhetorical or poetic device, as in “made glorious summer by this son (sun) of York” in Shakespeare’s Richard III. Another pun of serious intent is found in the Bible: Matthew 16.18:

“Thou art Peter [Greek Petros], and upon this rock [Greek petra] I will build my church.”

All writers engage in word play to some extent, but certain writers are particularly adept or committed to word play. Shakespeare was a noted punster. James Joyce, whose Ulysses, and even more so, his Finnegan’s Wake, are filled with brilliant writing and brilliant word play is another noted word-player. For example, Joyce’s phrase “they were yung and easily freudened” clearly conveys the meaning “young and easily frightened”, but it also makes puns on the names of two famous psychoanalysts, Jung and Freud.

Other writers closely identified with word play include:

  • Lewis Carroll in his Alice books

  • Willard R. Espy, an American, who collected several anthologies of word play

  • Vladimir Nabokov

  • George Bernard Shaw. The well-known spelling of fish as ghoti comes from Shaw: “gh as in tough, o as in women, ti as in station”.

Word play can enter common usage as neologisms. Neologism is the use of new words or new meanings for old words not yet included in standard definitions, as in the recent application of the word cool to denote, very good, excellent or fashionable. Some disappear from usage, others like hip and feedback, for example, remain in the language.

A pangram (Greek: pan gramma, “every letter”) or holoalphabetic sentence is a piece of text which uses every letter of the alphabet. Most pangrams are short, usually a single sentence: the aim in devising a pangram as a word game is to be as brief as possible.

Today, pangrams are frequently used to display typefaces (fonts), for example, The quick brown fox jumps over a lazy dog (Arial). The five boxing wizards jump quickly (Academy).

A Spoonerism (an example of metathesis) is a play on words in which corresponding consonants or vowels are switched. This phenomenon was named after the Reverend William Archibald Spooner (1844–1930), Warden of New College, Oxford, who was notoriously prone to this tendency. But it is supposed that he didn’t mix sounds deliberately. Some of his famous quotes from the chapel include “The Lord is a shoving leopard,” (a loving shepherd) “It is kisstomary to cuss the bride,” (customary to kiss the bride) and “Mardon me padam, this pie is occupewed. Can I sew you to another sheet?” (Pardon me, madam, this pew [огороженное место в церкви] is occupied. Can I show you to another seat?) The spoonerism is a now legendary “slip of the tongue.”

Other gaffes worth mentioning are Spooner’s angry speech to a student, “You have hissed all my mystery lectures, and were caught fighting a liar in the quad (во дворе колледжа). Having tasted two worms, you will leave by the next town drain,” actually intending to say, “You have missed all my history lectures, and were caught lighting fire in the quad. Having wasted two terms, you will leave by the next down train”, respectively. A few more include “We must drink a toast to the queer old Dean” (dear old Queen), “We’ll have the hags flung out” (flags hung out), and “Is the bean dizzy?” (Is the dean busy?)

President George W. Bush is known for curious turns of phrase, some of which may be considered spoonerisms. “If the terriers and bariffs (barriers and tariffs) are torn down, this economy will grow.” (January 7, 2001 in Rochester, New York).

To manipulate words is real art. Some authors even create fictional languages. For example, George Orwell invented so-called “Newspeak” in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. This bureaucrat’s and politicians’ language added greatly to the concepts of all-seeing Big Brother and thought police introduced by Orwell. Words in Newspeak are close to Soviet neologisms of the 1920s, such as “колхоз, партсъезд, местком, комсомол, агитпункт”. Some of them still exist in the Russian language. They are shorter forms of word expressions “коллективное хозяйство, партийный съезд, местный комитет, коммунистический союз молодёжи”, and “агитационный пункт”. Revolutionary changes in the society were reinforced by revolutionary changes in the language. New words were a powerful means to shape a new ideology.

Probably, Orwell borrowed this idea because his fictional Newspeak also has a new vocabulary for brainwashing; the government of the imaginary state Oceania sees no purpose in maintaining the old complex language, and so Newspeak is a language dedicated to the “destruction of words”. As one of the characters in the novel, Syme, puts it:

...If you have a word like “good”, what need is there for a word like “bad”? “Ungood” will do just as well... Or again, if you want a stronger version of “good”, what sense is there in having a whole string of vague useless words like ‘excellent’ and ‘splendid’ and all the rest of them? “Plusgood” covers the meaning, or “doubleplusgood” if you want something stronger still.... In the end the whole notion of goodness and badness will be covered by only six words; in reality, only one word. (Part One, Chapter Five)

Obviously, today there is no need to create an artificial language and introduce it by force. But it is possible to do fantastic things with already existing languages. Writing poems for fun is really amusing. For example, even small children can write acrostics.

An acrostic is a poem in which special letters spell another word (e.g. dog). Most often, the special letters come at the beginning of each line:


But the letters of “dog” may be placed in the end as well:


Most common are name acrostics. The following poem was written by David from the USA. The first letters of every line reveal his name to us.

David is
Annoying to Mrs. Bolton
Very nice to other teachers

There are many other poems illustrating constrained writing. But diamante poems are really unusual because according to the rule, they must have a certain shape and some particular words. The text of a diamante forms the shape of a diamond. The following pattern is used:

Line 1: Noun or subject (topic)
Line 2: Two Adjectives
Line 3: Three “ing” words
Line 4: Four words about the subject
Line 5: Three more “ing” words
Line 6: Two adjectives
Line 7: Synonym or antonym for the subject

So, a diamante (diamond) poem is an unrhymed poem that follows a specific grammatical pattern for choosing its words.

There are antonym diamante poems which show some differences of what is described. Here’s an example about a dog and a cat:

Playful, friendly
Barking, wagging, jumping
Companion, playmate, master, friend
Sleeping, purring, playing
Soft, independent

This one shows the difference between day and night:

Bright, sunny
Laughing, playing, doing
Up in the east, down in the west –
Talking, resting, sleeping
Quiet, dark

Synonym diamante poems can describe one topic:

Creepy, sinister
Hiding, lurking, stalking
Vampires, mummies, werewolves, – and more
Chasing, pouncing, eating
Hungry, scary

Language students can have fun with word play and word games. The art of rearranging letters and syllables in words is a source of entertainment for people who enjoy linguistic recreation. Letter arrangements and abbreviations create neologisms or even fictional languages. It is interesting to find some more examples in Russian and English, especially if they were coined by outstanding authors.

Finally, special word arrangements may form verses of different kinds. Teachers should challenge their students’ creativity and organize competitions in writing the best acrostic, anagram or designing a logo.

Submitted by Irina Ishkhneli,
School No. 1738, Moscow