The Wonderful World of Semordnilaps

mirror-of-erisedYou are most likely aware that a palindrome is a word or phrase that is spelled the same regardless of whether it’s read forward or backward. A few simple examples are noon, race car, dad, mom, and wow. But what happens when a word read backward creates a different word altogether? Welcome to the wonderful world of the semordnilap.

One of the earliest direct references to the concept of semordnilaps (though not the name) in English can be found in Lewis Carroll’s 1893 novel Sylvie and Bruno Concluded, which is the second volume of his 1889 Sylvie and Bruno. In Chapter 1 of Sylvie and Bruno Concluded, Carroll writes:

Sylvie was arranging some letters on a board- E-V-I-L.

‘Now Bruno,’ she said, ‘what does that spell?’

Bruno looked at it, in solemn silence, for a minute.

‘I know what it doesn’t spell!’ he said at last.

‘That’s no good,’ said Sylvie. ‘What does it spell?’

Bruno took another look at the mysterious letters, ‘Why, it’s “LIVE,” backwards!’, he exclaimed. (I thought it was, indeed.)

‘How did you manage to see that?’ said Sylvie.

‘I just twiddled my eyes,’ said  Bruno, ‘and  then I saw  it  directly…’

Since then, multiple attempts have been made to coin the perfect word to describe these sort of “half-palindromes,” but none have stuck or been accepted by the vast majority of linguists or the population at large. These alternate names include backronyms, volvograms, heteropalindromes, semi-palindromes, half-palindromes, reversgrams, mynoretehs, recurrent palindromes, reversible anagrams, word reversals, reversal pair, anagram, reversion, inversion, antigram, and anadromes.

As for the term “semordnilap,” which is beginning to win out as a name for the concept, it first appeared in C.C. Bombaugh’s 1961 Oddities and Curiosities of Words and Literature. The originator of the term does not appear to be, however, Dr. Bombaugh, but rather the editor and annotator of the book, Martin Gardner, who included “semordnilap” in one of his annotations. The word is self-referencing in that it demonstrates the concept for which it describes- semordnilap is palindromes spelled backwards.

Whatever you decide to call them, semordnilaps are everywhere. Some words are naturally semordnilaps (evil/live, god/dog, desserts/stressed, etc.), but others are created intentionally. For instance, “yob” is a British slang word for a rowdy, misbehaving young man- essentially acting opposite of how he should as a boy.

More famous instances of the latter type of semordnilap include:

  • The mirror Harry stumbles upon in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, which shows a person’s innermost desire is called the Mirror of Erised. Erised is desire spelled backward. In addition, the engraving on the mirror’s frame reads “Erised stra ehru oyt ube cafru oyt on wohsi.” If you read this sentence backward and shift the spaces, it reads “I show not your face but your heart’s desire.”
  • Yensid is the name of the sorcerer in Fantasia, which is “Disney” spelled backward.
  • Harpo is Oprah spelled backward, and is the name of her production company. (Interestingly, Oprah Winfrey’s real name is “Orpah,” named after the sister of the biblical character of Ruth. She changed it simply because most people mispronounced it as “Oprah”.)

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Bonus Facts:

  • When two semordnilaps are joined, they will always result in a palindromic phrase. For instance “stressed desserts” or “live evil.”
  • A calendrome refers to dates that are the same whether read forward or backward. For example 1/12/11, 2002, 2112, etc.
  • Tattarrattat is the longest palindromic word in the Oxford English Dictionary.
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