My goal to learn something new every day
Most people are, no doubt, aware of palindromes: words that are spelled the same forwards and backwards. “Race car” is a well-known example, as is: “Doc, note: I dissent. A fast never prevents a fatness. I diet on cod”.
But today, I learned about something even better, in my opinion, than a palindrome: A semordnilap. Whereas a palindrome is the same word when spelled backwards and forwards, a semordnilap is the name for a word that when spelled in reverse is a completely different word. The word “spot” in reverse is “tops”. So maybe it’s not the fact that some words spelled backwards can create a new word that I learned, but rather that this has a term.
Examples of other semordnilaps are:
While some might argue that semordnilap is not a ‘real’ word because it doesn’t appear in any major dictionary, it is a word that has been around since the 1960s. It first appeared in print, as far as I can tell, in a revised edition of a book called Oddities and curiosities of words and literature in the notes section written by the book’s editor Martin Gardner.
The British English word “yob” is a semordnilap. Yob, for anyone who doesn’t know, is a slang term for a young, usually (but not always) male loud-mouthed thug. However, “yob” didn’t start off as a semordnilap, but rather was coined by intentionally reversing the word “boy”, in a process known as back slang.
It is believed that back slang began in England, most probably during Victorian times, in butcher shops as a way for unscrupulous butchers to talk to their assistants in a kind of code in order to trick customers into buying poorer quality meat. While “yob” is “boy” backwards both written down and phonemically, many examples of back slang are spelled a bit differently than the original word when written down, with extra letters and syllables added, for instance when a word ends in a silent ‘e’. “Eefink”, for example, means “knife”, and “dratsab” means “bastard”.
The name for Harpo Studios in the US, the production company that was founded by Oprah Winfrey, also came about from the reverse spelling of Oprah’s name. And then of course there’s the name of the town in Dylan Thomas’s book Under Milk Wood: Llareggub. At first site, what looks to be a perfectly normal Welsh town name, takes on a slightly different meaning when you read it backwards.
And, just in case you haven’t realised by now, semordnilap is itself a semordnilap.