On the Etymology of “Palindrome” and Other Forms of Wordplay

A palindrome, as you likely know, is a word or phrase that reads the same backward and forward (KAYAK, ROTATOR, CIVIC). The word literally means “a running back,” or “a running again” from the Greek palin, meaning “back, again,” and dromos, meaning “a running.

Dromos is also the source of “dromedary,” a one-humped camel known for its speed. The Greek name was dromas kamelos, literally “a running camel.”

A word that spells another, different word when spelled backward (BONK :: KNOB) is known as a heteropalindrome (“a different running back,” from hetero- “different”), or an anadrome, which mashes together the ana- prefix from “anagram” and the ending of “palindrome.”

Although “anadrome” is a little more fun to say, etymologically speaking, “heteropalindrome” is a more accurate term. “Anadrome” and “palindrome” mean more or less the same thing because the prefix ana– also means “back” or “backwards.”

Then again, the word “anagram” itself doesn’t quite encompass what it means because it literally means “backward letter,” and as we know, anagrams are words whose letters can be rearranged to spell other words.

One form of anagramming used in Ancient Greece and in the Middle Ages was called themuru, supposedly meaning “changing.” The practice themuru, or anagramming names, is said to have been used to find hidden meanings in them. For example, Cabalists rearranged the Hebrew letters of the word “Messiah” to find the meaning “he shall rejoice.” These were often a bit labored and used to justify religious beliefs and even misogyny.

Anagrams as a witty game have been popular in Latin and English. For example:

Quid est veritas? (What is truth?) <—> Est vir qui adest (It is the man who is here)

William Shakespeare <—> I am a weakish speller

anagrams <—> Ars magna (“the great art” in Latin)

As have antigrams, in which the result is the opposite or an ironic take on the subject (the word being rearranged):


funeral <—> real fun

a volunteer fireman <—> I never run to a flame

evangelist <—> evil’s agent

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