An anagram is a type of 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 Doctor Who can be rearranged into Torchwood. Someone who creates anagrams may be called an "anagrammatist". The original word or phrase is known as the subject of the anagram.
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 may be a synonym or antonym of its subject, a parody, a criticism, or praise; e.g. William Shakespeare = I am a weakish speller
Another example is "silent" which can be rearranged to "listen". The two used in a famous phrase, "Think about it, SILENT and LISTEN are spelled with the same letters". (To mean "the quieter you become, the more you can hear").
The creation of anagrams assumes an alphabet, the symbols which are to be permuted. In a perfect anagram, every letter must be used, with exactly the same number of occurrences as in the anagrammed word or phrase. Diacritics are usually disregarded (this is usually not relevant for English anagrams), and standard orthography is to be used.
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.
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, 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.—William Camden, Remains
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; the physician George Ent took the anagrammatic motto genio surget, 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, with a V counted as U.
William Drummond of Hawthornden, in an essay On the Character of a Perfect Anagram, tried to lay down permissible rules (such as S standing for Z), and possible 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".
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]).
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
- "Arrigo Boito" = "Tobia Gorrio"
- "Edward Gorey" = "Ogdred Weary", = "Regera Dowdy" or = "E. G. Deadworry" (and others)
- "Vladimir Nabokov" = "Vivian Darkbloom", = "Vivian Bloodmark", = "Blavdak Vinomori" or = "Dorian Vivalcomb", "Dorian Vivalkomb"
- "Bryan Waller Proctor" = "Barry Cornwall, poet"
- "Ted Morgan" = "(Sanche) de Gramont"
- "Dave Barry" = "Ray Adverb"
- "Ronald Wilson Reagan" = "Insane Anglo Warlord"
- "Glen Duncan" = "Declan Gunn"
- "Damon Albarn" = "Dan Abnormal"
- "Tom Cruise" = "So I'm cuter"
- "Tom Marvolo Riddle" = "I am Lord Voldemort"
- "Buckethead" = "Death Cube K"
- "Daniel Clowes" = "Enid Coleslaw"
- "Siobhan Donaghy" = "Shanghai Nobody"
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:
- Shakespeare's Hamlet is an anagram for the Danish Prince Amleth.
- Homer Hickam, Jr.'s book Rocket Boys was adapted into the 1999 film October Sky.
- The tapes for the revival of the BBC show Doctor Who were labeled with the anagram Torchwood, which later went on to be used as the name for a spin-off show.
- The New Wave band Missing Persons' best-selling album was called Spring Session M.
- Hip-hop artist MF DOOM recorded a 2004 album called MM..FOOD.
- Brian Eno's album Before and After Science includes a song entitled "King's Lead Hat", an anagram of "Talking Heads", a band Eno has worked with.
- Juan Maria Solare's piano ballad "Jura ser anomalía" (literally "he/she swears to be an anomaly") is an anagram of the composer's full name. His composition for English horn titled "A Dot in Time" is an anagram of "Meditation", which describes the piece. The title of his piano piece that is an homage to Claude Debussy is "Seduce Us Badly".
- Bill Evans's overdubbed piano elegy for fellow jazz pianist Sonny Clark is titled "N.Y.C.'s No Lark," and another composition, "Re: Person I Knew" is a tribute to his producer, Orrin Keepnews.
- The title of Imogen Heap's album iMegaphone is an anagram of her name.
- Progressive rock group Rush published a song off their 1989 album Presto titled "Anagram (for Mongo)" that makes use of anagrams in every line of their song.
- The title of the fifth album by American rock band Interpol, El Pintor, is an anagram of the band's name and also Spanish for "the painter".
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.
Numerous other games and contests involve some element of anagram formation as a basic skill. Some examples:
- In Anagrams, players flip tiles over one at a time and race to take words. They can "steal" each other's words by rearranging the letters and extending the words.
- In a version of Scrabble called Clabbers, the name itself being an anagram of Scrabble, tiles may be placed in any order on the board as long as they anagram to a valid word.
- On the British game show Countdown, contestants are given 30 seconds to make the longest word from nine random letters.
- In Boggle, players make constrained words from a grid of sixteen random letters, by joining adjacent cubes.
- On the British game show BrainTeaser, contestants are shown a word broken into randomly arranged segments and must announce the whole word. At the end of the game there is a "Pyramid" which starts with a three-letter word. A letter appears in the line below to which the player must add the existing letters to find a solution. The pattern continues until the player reaches the final eight-letter anagram. The player wins the game by solving all the anagrams within the allotted time.
- In Bananagrams, players place tiles from a pool into crossword-style word arrangements in a race to see who can finish the pool of tiles first.
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 Internet Anagram Server) 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".
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- Anagrammatic poem
- Anagrams, a board game
- Constrained writing
- Letter bank
- London Underground anagram map
- Word play
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Thy genius calls thee not to purchase fame
In keen iambics, but mild anagram:
Leave writing plays, and choose for thy command
Some peaceful province in acrostic land.
There thou may'st wings display and altars raise,
And torture one poor word ten thousand ways.
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