An anagram is direct word switch or word play, the result of rearranging the letters of a word or phrase to produce a new word or phrase, using all the original letters exactly once; for example, the word anagram can be rearranged into nag-a-ram. Someone who creates anagrams may be called an "anagrammatist". The original word or phrase is known as the subject of the anagram. Anagrams are often used as a form of mnemonic device as well.
- Influence of Latin
- Early modern period
- Modern period
- Establishment of priority
- Games and puzzles
- Methods of construction
Any word or phrase that exactly reproduces the letters in another order is an anagram. However, the goal of serious or skilled anagrammatists is to produce anagrams that in some way reflect or comment on the subject.
Such an anagram (reflecting or commenting on the subject) may be a synonym or antonym of its subject, a parody, a criticism, or praise. It sometimes changes a proper noun or personal name into a sentence, such as with "William Shakespeare" = "I am a weakish speller" or "Madam Curie" = "Radium came". It can change parts of speech, such as the adjective "silent" to the verb "listen". "Anagrams" itself can be anagrammatized as "Ars magna" (Latin, 'the great art').
Anagrams can be traced back to the time of Moses, as "Themuru" or changing, which was to find the hidden and mystical meaning in names. They were popular throughout Europe during the Middle Ages, for example with the poet and composer Guillaume de Machaut. They are said to go back at least to the Greek poet Lycophron, in the third century BCE; but this relies on an account of Lycophron given by John Tzetzes in the 12th century.
Anagrams in Latin were considered witty over many centuries. "Est vir qui adest", explained below, was cited as the example in Samuel Johnson's A Dictionary of the English Language.
Any historical material on anagrams must always be interpreted in terms of the assumptions and spellings that were current for the language in question. In particular, spelling in English only slowly became fixed. There were attempts to regulate anagram formation, an important one in English being that of George Puttenham's Of the Anagram or Posy Transposed in The Art of English Poesie (1589).
Influence of Latin
As a literary game when Latin was the common property of the literate, Latin anagrams were prominent: two examples are the change of "Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum" (Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord [is] with you) into "Virgo serena, pia, munda et immaculata" (Serene virgin, pious, clean and spotless), and the anagrammatic answer to Pilate's question, "Quid est veritas?" (What is truth?), namely, "Est vir qui adest" (It is the man who is here). The origins of these are not documented.
Latin continued to influence letter values (such as I = J, U = V and W = VV). There was an ongoing tradition of allowing anagrams to be "perfect" if the letters were all used once, but allowing for these interchanges. This can be seen in a popular Latin anagram against the Jesuits: "Societas Jesu" turned into "Vitiosa seces", or "Cut off the wicked things". Puttenham, in the time of Elizabeth I of England, wished to start from Elissabet Anglorum Regina (Elizabeth Queen of the English), to obtain Multa regnabis ense gloria (By thy sword shalt thou reign in great renown); he explains carefully that H is "a note of aspiration only and no letter", and that Z in Greek or Hebrew is a mere SS. The rules were not completely fixed in the 17th century. William Camden in his Remains commented, singling out some letters—Æ, K, W, and Z—not found in the classical Roman alphabet:
The precise in this practice strictly observing all the parts of the definition, are only bold with H either in omitting or retaining it, for that it cannot challenge the right of a letter. But the Licentiats somewhat licentiously, lest they should prejudice poetical liberty, will pardon themselves for doubling or rejecting a letter, if the sence fall aptly, and "think it no injury to use E for Æ; V for W; S for Z, and C for K, and contrariwise.
Early modern period
When it comes to the 17th century and anagrams in English or other languages, there is a great deal of documented evidence of learned interest. The lawyer Thomas Egerton was praised through the anagram gestat honorem ('he carries honor'); the physician George Ent took the anagrammatic motto genio surget ('he rises through spirit/genius'), which requires his first name as Georgius. James I's courtiers discovered in "James Stuart" "a just master", and converted "Charles James Stuart" into "Claims Arthur's seat" (even at that point in time, the letters I and J were more-or-less interchangeable). Walter Quin, tutor to the future Charles I, worked hard on multilingual anagrams on the name of father James. A notorious murder scandal, the Overbury case, threw up two imperfect anagrams that were aided by typically loose spelling and were recorded by Simonds D'Ewes: "Francis Howard" (for Frances Carr, Countess of Somerset, her maiden name spelled in a variant) became "Car findes a whore", with the letters E hardly counted, and the victim Thomas Overbury, as "Thomas Overburie", was written as "O! O! a busie murther" (an old form of "murder"), with a V counted as U.
William Drummond of Hawthornden, in an essay On the Character of a Perfect Anagram, tried to lay down rules for permissible substitutions (such as S standing for Z) and letter omissions. William Camden provided a definition of "Anagrammatisme" as "a dissolution of a name truly written into his letters, as his elements, and a new connection of it by artificial transposition, without addition, subtraction or change of any letter, into different words, making some perfect sense applyable (i.e., applicable) to the person named." Dryden in MacFlecknoe disdainfully called the pastime the "torturing of one poor word ten thousand ways".
"Eleanor Audeley", wife of Sir John Davies, is said to have been brought before the High Commission in 1634 for extravagances, stimulated by the discovery that her name could be transposed to "Reveale, O Daniel", and to have been laughed out of court by another anagram submitted by Sir John Lambe, the dean of the Arches, "Dame Eleanor Davies", "Never soe mad a ladie".
An example from France was a flattering anagram for Cardinal Richelieu, comparing him to Hercules or at least one of his hands (Hercules being a kingly symbol), where Armand de Richelieu became Ardue main d'Hercule ("difficult hand of Hercules").
Examples from the nineteenth century are the transposition of "Horatio Nelson" into "Honor est a Nilo" (Latin = 'Honor is from the Nile'); and of "Florence Nightingale" into "Flit on, cheering angel". The Victorian love of anagramming as recreation is alluded to by Augustus De Morgan using his own name as example; "Great Gun, do us a sum!" is attributed to his son William De Morgan, but a family friend John Thomas Graves was prolific, and a manuscript with over 2,800 has been preserved.
With the advent of surrealism as a poetic movement, anagrams regained the artistic respect they had had in the Baroque period. The German poet Unica Zürn, who made extensive use of anagram techniques, came to regard obsession with anagrams as a "dangerous fever", because it created isolation of the author. The surrealist leader André Breton coined the anagram Avida Dollars for Salvador Dalí, to tarnish his reputation by the implication of commercialism.
While anagramming is certainly a recreation first, there are ways in which anagrams are put to use, and these can be more serious, or at least not quite frivolous and formless. For example, psychologists use anagram-oriented tests, often called "anagram solution tasks", to assess the implicit memory of young adults and adults alike.
Establishment of priority
Natural philosophers (astronomers and others) of the 17th century transposed their discoveries into Latin anagrams, to establish their priority. In this way they laid claim to new discoveries, before their results were ready for publication.
Galileo used smaismrmilmepoetaleumibunenugttauiras for Altissimum planetam tergeminum observavi ("I have observed the most distant planet to have a triple form") for discovering the rings of Saturn in 1610. Galileo announced his discovery that Venus had phases like the Moon in the form "Haec immatura a me iam frustra leguntur -oy" (Latin: These immature ones have already been read in vain by me -oy), that is, when rearranged, "Cynthiae figuras aemulatur Mater Amorum" (Latin: The Mother of Loves [= Venus] imitates the figures of Cynthia [= the moon]).
When Robert Hooke discovered Hooke's law in 1660, he first published it in anagram form, ceiiinosssttuv, for ut tensio, sic vis (Latin: as the tension, so the force).
In a related use, from 1975, British naturalist Sir Peter Scott coined the scientific term "Nessiteras rhombopteryx" (Greek for "The monster (or wonder) of Ness with the diamond-shaped fin") for the apocryphal Loch Ness Monster. Shortly afterwards, several London newspapers pointed out that "Nessiteras rhombopteryx" anagrams into "Monster hoax by Sir Peter S". However, Robert Rines, who previously made two underwater photographs allegedly showing the monster, countered with the fact that they can also be arranged into "Yes, both pix are monsters, R."
Anagrams are connected to pseudonyms, by the fact that they may conceal or reveal, or operate somewhere in between like a mask that can establish identity. For example, Jim Morrison used an anagram of his name in The Doors song L.A. Woman, calling himself "Mr. Mojo Risin' ". The use of anagrams and fabricated personal names may be to circumvent restrictions on the use of real names, as happened in the 18th century when Edward Cave wanted to get around restrictions imposed on the reporting of the House of Commons. In a genre such as farce or parody, anagrams as names may be used for pointed and satiric effect.
Pseudonyms adopted by authors are sometimes transposed forms of their names; thus "Calvinus" becomes "Alcuinus" (here V = U) or "François Rabelais" = "Alcofribas Nasier". The name "Voltaire" of François Marie Arouet fits this pattern, and is allowed to be an anagram of "Arouet, l[e] j[eune]" (U = V, J = I) that is, "Arouet the younger". Other examples include
Several of these are "imperfect anagrams", letters having been left out in some cases for the sake of easy pronunciation.
Anagrams used for titles afford scope for some types of wit. Examples:
In Hebrew, the name "Gernot Zippe" (גרנוט ציפה), the inventor of the Zippe-type centrifuge, is an anagram of the word "Centrifuge" (צנטריפוגה).
Games and puzzles
Anagrams are in themselves a recreational activity, but they also make up part of many other games, puzzles and game shows. The Jumble is a puzzle found in many newspapers in the United States requiring the unscrambling of letters to find the solution. Cryptic crossword puzzles frequently use anagrammatic clues, usually indicating that they are anagrams by the inclusion of a descriptive term like "confused" or "in disarray". An example would be Businessman burst into tears (9 letters). The solution, stationer, is an anagram of into tears, the letters of which have burst out of their original arrangement to form the name of a type of businessman.
Some games even use anagrams in their plot. For example, the game Undertale uses Delta Rune as an anagram of its title to represent the Dreemurr royal family and the name of their symbol.
Numerous other games and contests involve some element of anagram formation as a basic skill. Some examples:
Multiple anagramming is a technique used to solve some kinds of cryptograms, such as a permutation cipher, a transposition cipher, and the Jefferson disk.
Methods of construction
Sometimes it is possible to "see" anagrams in words, unaided by tools, though the more letters involved the more difficult this becomes. Anagram dictionaries could also be used. Computer programs, known as "anagram servers", "anagram solvers" or "anagrammers", offer a much faster route to creating anagrams, and a large number of these programs are available on the Internet. The program or server carries out an exhaustive search of a database of words, to produce a list containing every possible combination of words or phrases from the input word or phrase. Some programs (such as Lexpert) restrict to one-word answers. Many anagram servers (for example, The Words Oracle) can control the search results, by excluding or including certain words, limiting the number or length of words in each anagram, or limiting the number of results. Anagram solvers are often banned from online anagram games. The disadvantage of computer anagram solvers, especially when applied to multi-word anagrams, is their poor understanding of the meaning of the words they are manipulating. They usually cannot filter out meaningful or appropriate anagrams from large numbers of nonsensical word combinations. Some servers attempt to improve on this using statistical techniques that try to combine only words that appear together often. This approach provides only limited success since it fails to recognize ironic and humorous combinations.
Some anagrammatists indicate the method they used. Anagrams constructed without aid of a computer are noted as having been done "manually" or "by hand"; those made by utilizing a computer may be noted "by machine" or "by computer", or may indicate the name of the computer program (using Anagram Genius).
There are also a few "natural" instances: English words unconsciously created by switching letters around. The French chaise longue ("long chair") became the American "chaise lounge" by metathesis (transposition of letters and/or sounds). It has also been speculated that the English "curd" comes from the Latin crudus ("raw"). Similarly, the ancient English word for bird was "brid".