Levidrome: The Word That Launched a Thousand Erroneous Stories

alex atkins bookshelf wordsWhat is the word for a word, that when spelled backwards, is a different word? For example, “stop” spelled backwards is an entirely different word, “pots”, or “pool” and “loop, or “tar” and “rat”, or perhaps the most thought-provoking, “god” and dog.” And no, it isn’t a palindrome, because a palindrome is a word or phrase that has the same meaning whether you read it forward or backwards, for example “redder,” “redivider” or “level.”

Recently, a six-year-old Canadian boy, Levi Budd, proposed a new word, levidrome, to describe these types of words. The inspiration came when Budd was riding in the car with his mother. The car came to a stop sign, and Budd looked at the word, noting that “stop” spelled backwards was “pots.” Budd asked his mother, “What do you call a word that becomes another word when you spell it backwards?” Most likely they googled the question and, for whatever reason, there were no relevant results. Naturally, they surmised that there was no word for this, so Budd decided to coin a word of his own: levidrome, pronounced “leh VEE drome.” Interestingly, by using his name, levidrome is simultaneously an eponym (a word named after a person), and a portmanteau (the combination of two words): “levi”, his name, and “drome,” derived from the Greek palindrome, meaning “a running back” (palin means “back”; dromos means “a running”).

But we digress — as is often the case with many stories in the digital age, the story of a young boy who was inspired to coin a new word for a form of wordplay that supposedly did not have a name, captivated the click-hungry media. The story, without appropriate fact-checking that should occur before any article is published or broadcast, was picked up by newspapers, blogs, and television stations around the globe, even gaining the enthusiastic support of teachers, librarians, and even celebrities like William Shatner and Patricia Arquette. The media frenzy around this story also prompted the family to launch a well-intentioned online campaign on YouTube (“Levidrome — Let’s get this word in the dictionary”) to convince the editors of American and British dictionaries to include Budd’s neologism in their respective dictionaries immediately. The only research presented in that video was a single post from Snopes discussing the word emordnilap, introduced in 2014 on a Tumblr blog, that is not really an official word (lexicographers would call it a nonce word). The editors of Merriam-Webster and the Oxford Dictionaries, acknowledged that Budd’s word was “new,” implying that there was no existing word for this form of wordplay, and agreed to monitor the usage of levidrome to see if it should be included in a future update of their respective dictionaries.

But here is what is truly surprising: there actually is a word for this type of wordplay — and it is more than 56 years old. Oops! Had the editors, librarians, teachers, and fact-checkers done their work, they would have realized famous writers, like Lewis Carroll and James Joyce were fascinated by this clever wordplay, and it led two writers, who specialize in word puzzles, to coin the term in the 1960s. And perhaps even curioser is that this word has the most synonyms of any type of wordplay. Double Oops! Or as Shatner’s colleague, Leonard Nimoy (playing Spock) would say, “Fascinating!”

Before we get to the word, let’s state an important fact in the digital era: you can never assume that Google’s search capability does not have limitations. Not every relevant book has been digitized; or if it has, some key information has not been properly indexed. As most researchers know, the key to finding the best answers is knowing where to look — the needle in the haystack conundrum. The more exact the search, the more exact the results. And in this case, the answer is not easily found online, but it is definitely there — you just need to know where to look, focusing in on a particular part of the haystack, as it were. However the answer is easily found in books, particularly books on wordplay  or word puzzles. Why the writers and fact-checkers didn’t simply consult any wordplay reference book or consult any logophile or lexicographer who would be very familiar with these books is, well… puzzling. So it definitely helps to own more than 1,000 dictionaries and books about words — because the answer is in a several of them. The editors of the Merriam-Webster and Oxford Dictionaries should have turned this into a teachable moment and explained to Budd that the word he was looking for was “semordnilap” and that his newly coined word could be added to the list of existing synonyms for that word. In this manner, they could have underscored the importance of critical analytical skills and research as well as creativity and initiative.

Faithful readers of Bookshelf may recall the blog post titled “What is a Semordnilap?” (March 29, 2017) that defines the word (“A semordnilap is a word, phrase, or sentence that can be read in reverse with a different meaning.”), its etymology (“The word is a reverse spelling of palindromes”) and lists many examples. The word was coined by the brilliant mathematician and epeolatrist (a worshipper of words) Martin Gardner and C. C. Bombaugh in 1961. That definition can be found 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.”

Any word-lover will be familiar with Willard Espy who 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.”

Finally, for those who truly love wordplay like semordnilaps, you can even find a semordnilap generator tool online. The website for word puzzle lovers, dCode, based in France, presents many tools to generate anagrams, palindromes, etc. The semordnilap generator tool can be found here.

The wonderful thing about the English language is that it is always evolving, adding new words and discarding old ones. And as lexicographer Peter Mark Roget discovered more than a 150 years ago, you can never have enough synonyms for words. Through current and future usage, levidrome can be added to the list of 18 synonyms for a semordnilap. Even better, Budd’s word sheds new light on a form of wordplay that has long fascinated word lovers, like Carroll and Joyce. The story also emphasizes the importance of thorough research using online information as well as actual books.

Read related posts: What is a Semordnilap?
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

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