Palindromes and Other Word Play


2011 has been chock full of palindromic dates. First there was 1/11/11 (or 11/1/11, for Europeans), then 11/1/11 (or 1/11/11), then “the very rare, eight-digit” palindrome date, 11/02/2011. Aziz Inan, a professor of electrical engineering “who has taken on the discovery of palindrome dates as a sort of hobby, explained that there will only be 12 eight-digit palindrome days this entire century.”

Then there’s today, 11/11/11, which like 1/11/11 and 11/1/11 is both a palindrome and an ambigram, something that can be read the same way backward, forward, right side up and upside down.

A palindrome is “a word, phrase, number or any other sequence of units” that reads the same backward or forward, like eve, mom, and the phrase, Madam I’m Adam. The longest English palindrome is tattarrattat, onomatopoeia for a rapping on the door, as coined by James Joyce in his novel Ulysses. The longest palindrome in everyday use seems to be the Finnish saippuakivikauppias, “a soapstone vendor.”

The word palindrome comes from the Greek palindromos, “running back again, recurring,” with palin meaning “again, back” and dromos meaning “a running.” Palin also gives us palimpsest, “a parchment or other writing-material from which one writing has been erased or rubbed out to make room for another”; palinode, “a poetical recantation, or declaration contrary to a former one”; and palingenesis, “a new or second birth or production; the state of being born again.”

How about a word that spells a different word when read backwards? That’s a semordnilap, which is palindromes in reverse. The term was probably coined by “logologist Dmitri A. Borgmann,” and includes examples such as reviled/deviled, loot/tool, and mood/doom. Backmasking is “a recording technique in which a sound or message is deliberately recorded backwards in a track that is meant to be played forwards.” An example is supposed Satanic messaging found in certain heavy metal songs when played backwards. Backmasking is also known as backward masking.

Have aibohphobia? Then you might prefer an anagram, “a transposition of the letters of a word or sentence, to form a new word or sentence,” or an antigram, “an anagram that means the opposite of the original word or phrase.” A heterogram is “a word or phrase in which no letter occurs more than once” while a pangram is “a sentence that contains every letter of the alphabet” (The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog). A kangaroo word is “a word that contains letters of another word, in order, with the same meaning.” A ghoti is “a constructed word used to illustrate irregularities in English spelling” and “a respelling of the word ‘fish’.”

Have a touch of paronomasia? Don’t worry, you just have the puns. Have a Tom Swifty – a phrase that uses an adverbial pun (“I’m cold,” she said icily) – and call me in the morning.

What about word play by mistake? A spoonerism is “a transposition of sounds of two or more words, especially a ludicrous one” (A daisy lay for A lazy day) and is named for William Archibald Spooner, a British cleric and scholar who was supposedly prone to this inadvertent play on words. A spoonerism is also known as a marrowsky, named after a Polish count who supposedly had the same affliction.

If someone says “I scream!” and you hear “Ice cream!” that’s a mondegreen. The word mondegreen is itself a misinterpretation, specifically of the line hae laid him on the green, as Lady Mondegreen, in the song “The Bonny Earl of Murray.” Another example can be found in the film Roxanne:

C.D. Bales: Ten more seconds and I’m leaving!
Roxanne Kowalski: What did you say?
C.D. Bales: I said, ten more seconds and I’m leaving! Wait a second! What did you think I said?
Roxanne Kowalski: I thought you said, “Earn more sessions by sleeving.”
C.D. Bales: Well, what the hell does that mean?
Roxanne Kowalski: I don’t know. That’s why I came out.

The Virtual Linguist lists several mondegreens in the form of misheard lyrics, while Mark Liberman at Language Log takes a look at the Anthology of Rap, which may be better named the Anthology of Mondegreens.

A malapropism is the “ludicrous misuse of a word, especially by confusion with one of similar sound” (As Bob as my witless for As God as my witness, from an episode of the cartoon series, Rugrats), and is named for Mrs. Malaprop, a character in an 18th century play “noted for her ridiculous misuse of large words (e.g. ‘contagious countries” for “contiguous countries’).” Her name comes from malapropos, “inappropriate; out of place,” which comes from the French mal à propos, with mal meaning “badly” and à propos meaning “to the purpose.” The opposite of malapropos is apropos.

An eggcorn is “a series of words that result from the misunderstanding of a word or phrase as some other word or phrase having a plausible explanation, as free reign for free rein, or to the manor born for to the manner born.” An eggcorn is similar to a malapropism, except that while a malapropism results in a ludicrous phrase, an eggcorn “makes sense,” according to Chris Waigl at the Eggcorn Database, “for anyone except lexicographers or other people trained in etymology, more sense than the original form in many cases.” Language Log’s Mark Liberman explores the example whoa is me (for woe is me). The term was coined by Geoffrey Pullum, and named for the mishearing of eggcorn for acorn.

A crash blossom refers to a newspaper headline with syntactic ambiguity, or which may be interpreted in more than one way. The phrase was coined by Dan Bloom and Mike O’Connell “based on a headline ‘Violinist linked to JAL crash blossoms.’” The Language Log has many examples.

But this post is about palindromes, right? Check out this piece from The Believer about “master palindromist” Barry Duncan, and this tribute to Bob Dylan from “Weird Al” Yankovic done entirely in palindromes. You might also like this post from the Grammar Girl further explaining the differences between language mix-ups; this list of palindromes and semordnilaps; this one of panvocalics, or words that contain all the vowels; and this one of ROT13 pairs.

[Photo: CC BY 2.0 by Lord Jim]

2 thoughts on “Palindromes and Other Word Play

  1. What is the term for a word where its first letter forward becomes its first letter read backward. The first letter is not repeated?

    Hanna is a good example. Hanna
    Where: Hannah is a palindrom, and not an example.

    So the first letter of the word, cannot be repeated as the last letter, but is instead

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