What is a Semordnilap?

alex atkins bookshelf wordsAlthough is sounds like a Swedish dish, a semordnilap is a word, phrase, or sentence that can be read in reverse with a different meaning. An example of a semordnilap is “evil / live.” But perhaps the most well-known example of a semordnilap is: “dog / god” — the subject of much philosophical pondering.

The word, a reverse spelling of “palindromes,” was coined by C. C. Bombaugh and Martin Gardner in 1961. That detail is found in a note on page 345 of Oddities and Curiosities of Words and Literature (1961, Dover Publications), written by Gardner: “The term ‘semordnilap’ (palindromes spelled backwards) has been proposed for words that spell different words in reverse. An example pointed out by Lewis Carroll in his novel Sylvie and Bruno is the word evil, which is live backward. Other examples are straw, stop, maps, bard, strap, reknits, lamina, deliver, son (see James Joyce’s Ulysses, Random House edition, page 584), dessert, devil, mood, repaid.”

So how is a semordnilap different than a palindrome? Although they are related, a semordnilap is different from a palindrome because the word or phrase that is formed from the reverse spelling has an entirely different meaning; in a palindrome the meaning is exactly the same if read in either direction. For example, the palindrome “Madam I’m Adam” reads the same backward as forward. Palindromic words like noon, civic, radar, level, and madam all have the same meaning spelled backward and forward.

Willard Espy, a clever passionate word-lover, wrote several books on wordplay. One of his most popular works, The Game of Words (published in 1971, and republished in a new edition in 1980) lists the definition of semordnilap on page 185: “Semordnilap is ‘palindromes’ spelled backwards, and stands for words that spell different words in reverse. Some examples: devil, repaid, stressed, rewarder, straw, maps, strap, reknits, deliver, bard, and doom.” More recently, Anu Garg, creator of the Word A Day website and author of A Word A Day (2003), has an entire chapter on semordnilaps. On page 66, Garg writes: ” Desserts is an example of a reversible word, which when read from the right yields another word… Another word for reversible words is semordnilap, a self-referential word coined by reversing the word palindromes.” Garg then presents five examples with detailed notes: avid, ogre, debut, nonet, and rebus.

For any major topic, you can be sure there is a specialized dictionary for it. For word puzzle and word-lovers, there are two respected dictionaries: Wordplay: A Curious Dictionary of Language Oddities by Chris Cole (1999) and The Dictionary of Wordplay by Dave Morice (2001). The second dictionary is considered the most, um… definitive. When you turn to the “S’ section, on page 185 you will find the following definition: “semordnilap: a synonym for REVERSAL. The term is the word palindromes spelled in reverse.” Now if you look up REVERSAL, this gets really curioser — not only do you get the definition, you also get the 18 synonyms. Yes, you read that correctly: eighteen. Here is Morice’s entry for reversal: “a word or phrase that spells another word or phrase in reverse… This wordplay form has had more names that any other. ‘Anagram’ oddly enough, was the original term. Other terms include: ananym, antigram, drow, half-palindrome, heterodrome, inversion, palinode, recurrent palindrome, retronym, reversagram, reversal pair, reversible, reversible anagram, reversion, semordnilap, sotadic palindrome, and word reversal.”

Here are samples of semordnilaps:

avid / diva

bad / dab

bard / drab

deer / reed

desserts / stressed

deliver / reviled

devil / lived

dioramas / samaroid

drawer / reward

dog / god

evil / live

fires / serif

keels / sleek

lever / revel

looter / retool

maps / spam

mood / doom

murder / redrum

nod / don

ogre / ergo

part / trap

pin / nip

rat / tar

reel / leer

repaid / diaper

rewarder / redrawer

sleep / peels

spit / tips

spot / tops

star / rats

straw / warts

strap / parts

stop / pots

swap / paws

tide / edit

tip / pit

tram / mart

yard / dray

Read related posts: What is a Levidrome?
What is a Phantonym?

What is the Longest Word in English Language?
Word Oddities: Fun with Vowels

What is an Abecedarian Insult?
Difficult Tongue Twisters
Rare Anatomy Words
What Rhymes with Orange?
Words with Letters in Alphabetical Order

For further reading: The Game of Words by Willard Espy
Oddities and Curiosities of Words and Literature by C. C. Tombaugh edited and annotated by Martin Gardner
A Word of Day by Anu Garg
Wordplay: A Curious Dictionary of Language Oddities by Chris Cole
The Dictionary of Wordplay by Dave Morice




2 thoughts on “What is a Semordnilap?

    • Hi TCI: Thanks for your note and support. Being insatiably curious about so many things, it is nice to hear that readers enjoy some of things that I find so fascinating. Cheers. Alex

Join the conversation

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.