What is an Anagram?
To create an anagram, you rearrange the letters of a word or phrase to form a different word or phrase. For example, the word section is an anagram for notices and vice versa. A “perfect” anagram uses all the letters, no more, no less. But sometimes letters are repeated or omitted. Before the modern alphabet was formalized, let alone modern spelling, anagrams could be less formal too, since I and J or U and V were still interchangeable.
The anagram has a long and honorable literary history. The ancient Greeks called anagrams themuru (changing) and searched for mystic insights into people and their futures by rearranging the letters of their names. As a micro literary genre, the anagram challenges a writer to describe a person, place or thing using only the letters in its name. Several writers, including Voltaire, created pseudonyms or pen names by making anagrams of their real names.
Playing with anagrams
Anagrams make good puzzles and games, such as in Scrabble, Upwords, or Words With Friends. You can use letter tiles from those games to play a game called Anagrams, which has been popular since the Victorian age, using a variety of rules. Jumble, That Scrambled Word Game is syndicated in more than 600 U.S. newspapers each day, where unscrambling a set of five- and six-letter anagrams leads to the solution, usually a pun. Scrabble players often start each turn by trying to forming anagrams from the seven letters they hold.
For one common anagram game, the point is to see how many anagrams you can make from a single word. For example, from the seven letters in rescued, you can make recused, reduces, seducer, and secured, using each letter exactly once. If you leave out letters, you can also form six-letter words such as deuces, screed and crudes, five-letter words such as curds, suede, and reeds, or four-letter words such as deer, seed, and user. If you use letters more than once, you can also make decrees, recused and erred.
Especially because they were viewed mystically, anagrams had political significance. The day before the end of a long siege of the city of Tyre in 332 BC, Alexander the Great told his favorite seer Aristander that he had dreamed about a satyr, a nature spirit often depicted as half horse, half man. Aristander replied that the dream about a satyros must mean “sa Tyros” – “Tyre is yours.” In 1617, French anagrammatist Thomas Billon published a book titled The omens of the happiness of the king, and of France. The king, who was Louis XIII (the 13th), must have liked the book, because he appointed Billon as Royal Anagrammatist in 1624, tasked with creating more of the same – prophetic anagrams, anagrams of famous names, and humorous anagrams.
Anagrams have been important in Jewish and Christian literature, even used in the Bible, such as in Isaiah 61:3. Beginning about the 2nd century, some Talmudic and Midrashic scholars made anagrams the key to a method of interpreting the Bible, called “inversions.” At first, these scholars rearranged letters, then later rearranged complete words to find deeper meanings in the Scriptures. A thousand years after that, Jewish Cabalists were writing anagrams on amulets, and like the Greeks, sought secret meanings in the anagrams of proper names. Medieval Christian anagrammatists turned the biblical question “Quid est veritas?” into an answer: “Est qui vir adest.”
During the 17th century, scientists would use anagrams to announce new discoveries. That is, they would publish an anagram when they made a tentative discovery, then announce the solution to the anagram once they could confirm their discovery. In 1610, after viewing Saturn through a fuzzy telescope he had made, the Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei mailed his colleagues an anagram.
That means nothing to you and me, but if another astronomer later claimed that Saturn has a bump on either side, Galileo could say, “Isn’t that what I told you in 1610? Didn’t I specifically say “Altissimum planetam tergeminum observavi” (“I have observed the most distant planet to have a triple form”)?
In 1655, Christiaan Huygens built a much better telescope than Galileo, and saw that what looked like two bumps was really a disc or ring around Saturn. So he published his own anagram.
Huygens’s anagram didn’t win any points for wit or wisdom, but alphabetizing it made it harder to decrypt his cryptic encryption: “Annuto cingitur, tenui, plano, nusquam coherente, ad eclipticam inclinato” (“It is surrounded by a thin, flat ring, nowhere touching, inclined to the ecliptic.”)
In 1678, no doubt during a anagram fad, poet John Dryden described anagrams as the “torturing of one poor word ten thousand ways.” The anagram had a Victorian literary revival in the 19th century, exemplified by clever anagrams that commented on their source. Under the pen of Lewis Carroll, the mathematician who wrote Alice in Wonderland,, pioneering nurse Florence Nightingale became “Flit on, cheering angel.” British Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone became “A wild man will go at trees.”
Anagrams in the 21st century
Today a computer can make anagrams using what is sometimes called a “jumble algorithm” to find all possible combinations of letters and then compare them to a dictionary. You can find several anagram solvers online, such as these:
Provide those tools with a sequence of letters (up to fourteen) and click “Scramble!” to see the words that can be made from those letters – sometimes more than a thousand. More than 460 words can be created from the letters “dailywriting” (including dignitary, daringly, and tailwind) and almost 175 from the letters “writingtips” (including spiriting, wingtips, wising, and stint). Of course, a human writer is better than a computer program at picking puns, parodies, praises, and other clever combinations, so nobody has created a virtual Lewis Carroll yet.
The Manythings website for English language learners includes lists of everyday vocabulary words that are also anagrams. What is another word you can make from the letters in kitchen? Or from vases? Click the “Answer” button to check your solution. As usual, the Wikipedia article on anagrams gives more background on the subject.
Creating and solving anagrams helps improve your vocabulary and keeps your mind sharp. Like any writing restriction, anagrams can spur creativity by giving you only a certain number of letters to write with. If one of them is Q, that definitely limits the places your mind needs to go to find the right word.
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