Last year a story was making the rounds about a bright six year old, Levi Budd. Levi wanted to know what to call the special words that make different words when their spelling is reversed. For example, diaper is repaid, and live becomes evil.
Levi’s parents told him that there was no word to describe these flipped words, so they invented a new word, levidrome.
It’s a catchy story because wordplay is fun and when you notice a cool phenomenon in the world it’s nice to be able to refer to it, talk about it, and play with it.
It’s also a cool story because William Shatner got involved. I was personally retweeted by William Shatner, so that’s a thrill for me! Also, I know Levi’s father, Lucky, who is a local historian and author.
The challenge is that there are several words to describe these kinds of flipped words. But you wouldn’t know that if you followed the news.
Story of Levi’s new word is an interesting example of problematic information
A key part of this story was that when Levi asked his parents what the name of those flipped words is, they told him that there was no word. Here’s how the Toronto Star put it on November 21st:
The inquisitive word lover had just one question for his mom that day in January, when the two were in the car and he turned stop into pots: “What do we call a word that spells another word backwards?”
His mom and dad, Jessy Friedenberg and Lucky Budd, discovered there’s no word defining such flipped words so Levi decided he better invent one…
So. According to The Star there was no word defining such flipped words.
To be fair, it’s not just the Toronto Star that published this. Many news organizations like the Chronicle Herald and the National Post and Global News , from across Canada, and even internationally, did stories about Lucky Budd and his partner and son. And many news organizations wrote that they “discovered there’s no word defining such flipped words”. And even the news orgs that didn’t write this exact phrase, still led the reader to believe that there really was no word to describe these special flipped words.1
Some news orgs were a little cagey about it. Many news orgs would eventually write that there was one other word but then quoted Lucky Budd saying that word “makes no sense.”
And to be fair to news orgs, Lucky Budd actively advocated to many of us on Twitter that there “is no word for a word that spells another one backwards.” Budd also made a video where he actually argues by presenting evidence that there are no other words that refer to these special flipped words. And Lucky Budd was often cagey in the way he sometimes equated “not in the dictionary” with “not a real word.”2
The thing is, there are many words to refer to this variety of flipped words.
A google search for “What words spell other words backwards?” could have prevented this.
Many words in use that describe words that spell different words backwards
The most common words to describe flippable words seem to be: anadrome, semordnilap, emordnilap, and heteropalindrome. Other words that are less common, but still used, are: reversals, mynoretehs, antigrams, and volvograms. They aren’t in the Oxford English dictionary. That is true. But really lots of words aren’t in the dictionary. They’re still words, with real meanings.
James Puder, at Butler University, published a short essay in 2000 delineating no fewer than 17 historical synonyms of semordnilap:3
- anagram (meaning was different mid-twentieth century)
- ananym (was once in several dictionaries)
- antigram (meaning has also changed)
- recurrent palindrome
- retronym (was in the Oxford Companion to the English Language 1992, but meaning has changed)
- reversal pair/sentence
- reversible anagram
- sotadic palindrome
- word reversal
He left out emordnilap. Puder also suggested one of his own: heterodrome.
So the problem is not that there is no word to describe flipped words. The problem is that there are too many.
News organizations systematically misled their readers
At least two of the common words, anadrome and semordnilap, have been published in books. Here’s the Google Ngram for semordnilap.
Anadrome is used in academic literature about linguistics. There are even interesting variations. Phonemic anadromes, for example, are words like tack and cat which are reversed phonetically instead of by spelling.4
There are also many online lists of anadromes.
There are online anadrome games.
Here’s a comparison of Google searches (Google Trends) for anadrome, semordnilap, emordnilap and levidrome, since 2004:
Here’s the map showing where those searches come from:
There’s even a game sold on Amazon for children, about anadromes, which they refer to as volvograms.
A. J. Mittendorf is a Master in English Literature who has taught for 25 years and he’s from Nanaimo, which is pretty nearby. He has a webpage dedicated to heteropalindromes.
But hey, readers of journalism will have “learned” that there were no words for anadromes, and Levi had to invent one.
Zombie facts, hoaxes and misinformation
It’s easy to get things wrong. Misinformation (PDF) is not new. The news has an important role to play in this for sure. But there’s a fascinating chain of events here. The chain starts with a word-loving six year old and his supportive parents. There was probably also a press release. Add to this mix some overworked reporters and editors.
I think this case is also an interesting one because the campaign was mostly heart-warming and nerdy and fun, so we all climbed on board with local and international news media and shared the heck out of it.
And now I hear that elementary school classrooms around the province are teaching their young students about levidromes, and, sadly, probably not the context and synonyms. Teachers that read the news will think that there were no other words to describe this phenomenon.
— Kathryn MacLean (@ms_maclean) February 4, 2018
Here’s Lucky advocating for levidrome by arguing that this discussion “has never really happened until Levi came along.”
Mike,NO ONE uses that word.Truthfully, had u ever heard of it before Levi came along?If so, u r in the minority.The discussion of"what do we call words that spell another backwards"has never really happened until Levi came along & we r doing it now!Hence,no word yet in dictionary
— Lucky Budd (@lucky_budd) November 28, 2017
@cesarmillan Thought you'd like this! Of course you know that Dog backwards is God, but did you know that there is no word for a word that spells another word backwards? This 6yr old is trying to get one into the dictionary: https://t.co/DD1JrEBNfs Good story!
— Lucky Budd (@lucky_budd) November 18, 2017
News orgs focussed on Levi’s new word at the expense of the broader context
Despite the fact that there are many synonyms for anadrome, news organizations systematically led readers to incorrectly believe that either Levi invented the first word to refer to anadromes, or that there was only one other, poorly used word, emordnilap.
For the record, I like levidrome.
Levidrome is a word now, as much as the others. Like the others, it’s not yet in the OED. That doesn’t matter to me, and it probably shouldn’t matter to oral historians. The restrictive nature of dictionaries is a “ham butt problem”.
I think the campaign to make a new word is charming and lovely! There's room for more words. We can honour old words and we can make new ones. It seems "semordnilap" has been in use since at least 1961. https://t.co/EEOkfUU0NX
— Sherwin Arnott (@sherwinarnott) November 28, 2017
And despite the fog of misinformation, no one is really harmed by this story.
Maybe journalism is. But all words are wrapped in deliciously human, social and political contexts. And this isn’t just a journalism challenge. It’s a human challenge.7
DETARTRATER (one who or that which separates something from tartaric acid)
RETARTRATED (recombined with tartaric acid) #semordnilap
— Indi Rayet (@indiandrug) May 2, 2013
— Sherwin Arnott (@sherwinarnott) November 30, 2017
- http://nationalpost.com/pmn/news-pmn/canada-news-pmn/word-flipping-victoria-boy-gets-william-shatners-support-for-invented-word, https://globalnews.ca/news/3873539/six-year-old-b-c-boy-looks-to-add-new-word-to-the-dictionary-and-captain-kirk-approves/, ↩
- I find this odd because Lucky Budd identifies as an oral historian. ↩
- Puder, James (2000) “Seventeen Synonyms of Semordnilap,” Word Ways: Vol. 33 : Iss. 1 , Article 9. http://digitalcommons.butler.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=4432&context=wordways ↩
- It’s also used in biology, but with a different meaning. ↩
- See also this author discuss wordplay in The Week, http://theweek.com/articles/464433/palindromes-anagrams-9-other-names-alphabetical-antics ↩
- The For Dummies people also did a little research and discovered that there are fewer than 900 such words in English. ↩
- That tweet of mine that was retweeted by William Shatner, that I’m so proud of, is a perfect example of this. I was retweeting a tweet from 2013, when apparently no one knew what to call levidromes. ↩