What’s an “Ambigram”?

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Although I read Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons (2000), I don’t recall having noticed the word ambigram. When I watched the film based on the book, however, I did notice it, and found myself becoming vaguely annoyed by the frequency with which Tom Hanks says it. I thought he was intending to say “anagram”:

anagram: transposition of letters in a word so as to form another

My usual starting places when I want to write about words– the OED, Merriam-Webster, and the OnlineEtymologyDictionary–are all silent on ambigram, but here’s a definition from Wikipedia:

An ambigram is a typographical design or artform [sic] that may be read as one or more words not only in its form as presented, but also from another viewpoint, direction, or orientation. The words readable in the other viewpoint, direction or orientation may be the same or different from the original words.

Although not yet in the big dictionaries, ambigram is in common use by tattoo enthusiasts and others. There’s even a magazine dedicated to this type of ambiguous design: Ambigram Magazine.

The word combines Latin ambiguus, “having double meaning, shifting, changeable, doubtful,” with gram, which is derived from Greek graphein, “to draw, write.”

The word is of recent coinage. According to the Wikipedia article, it originated with Indiana professor Douglas Hofstadter and his friends in the early 1980s. Two graphic designers associated with this type of drawing are John Langdon and Scott Kim.

Other readers of Angels and Demons were more attentive than I was. The book is credited with popularizing both the word and the type of drawing that it denotes.

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6 thoughts on “What’s an “Ambigram”?”

  1. I hadn’t realized this concept/word was so new.

    I suspect most of these work because the human mind strives to make connections between what it sees and what it can imagine being there.

    The 1980 date makes it a little hard to imagine an ancient secret society using them (ha). But I guess that’s part of the fun of novels, they can present “facts” and make us temporarily suspend our doubt in order to continue with the story.

  2. @Cid
    Ambigrams are drawings. There are plenty of illustrations of them on the web, but I didn’t insert any into this post because I don’t wish to infringe anyone’s copyright. If you’ll do an Image web search for Ambigram, you’ll find lots of examples.

  3. I didn’t know that’s that what they were called, but now that this was posted, it makes sense.

    @Cid, I have a photo of a girl standing right next to a mirror. She is wearing a red T-shirt that says “Hate,” but when you read the writing in the mirror reflection, it says “Love.” This might better be termed an “ambigraph” (did I just make up a word?) because it’s writing, not drawing, but I’m sure many people are familiar with those pictures that (for example) look like a young girl when viewed one way, and then look like an old lady when viewed upside down.

  4. I’ve been chided by several readers for not including examples. Here’s a link to an ambigram that someone uploaded to a blog after reading the Brown novel:

  5. Hi Maeve,
    Glad to see your explanation on ambigram. An ambigram is a word, where the word reads the same when upside down or turn over to form an entirely new word. Thank you for your detail information about ambigram.
    Kind Regards
    Yasin Rishad

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