Words at Play

Although wordplay has a long and rich history, writing an annual report or senior thesis can form a strong association in our minds between words and toil; we can easily come to think of them as widgets, often produced under pressure, as in, “I need to crank out 500 words by 5:00 p.m.” We lose sight of the fact that juxtaposing 26 letters in infinite combinations to generate meaning is a fundamentally creative process that lends itself as much to play as to work. Devotees of Jane Austen may recall a scene in Emma that revolves around unscrambling letters to form words in order to brighten a “dull-looking evening, that ought to be treated rather as winter than summer.” Watching Netflix was not an option in 1815.

Two diversions – for any season – with letters at their core are anagrams and palindromes.

Anagrams, in which the letters of a word or phrase are rearranged to form new ones, have been created since ancient times, often involving personal names. Thus James Stuart (King James I of England) became “a just master,” while Florence Nightingale became “flit on, cheering angel.” Other anagrams take clever advantage of common nouns, whereby, for instance, “dormitory” becomes “dirty room,” and “astronomer” becomes “moon starer.” As these examples suggest, the best anagrams, known as cognates, are those that preserve a relationship with their subjects.

Palindromes present a different challenge: placing letters in a sequence that reads the same forward and backward.  Some words, such as “noon,” “did,” and “civic,” are palindromic, but it is phrases that offer true scope for wordplay. One of the most famous is attributed to a creative Briton named Leigh Mercer who published a list of palindromes in 1948 that included “A man, a plan, a canal – Panama.” Teddy Roosevelt, who championed this hegemonic feat of engineering, would have been pleased. Two years before, Mercer published another list of “oddities” that included “Was it a rat I saw?” and “In a real rage ran I.” One can only wonder if the second was inspired by the first.

And now it’s your turn! Dust off your favorite anagrams and palindromes or devise some new ones under “Share Your Thoughts” below.