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The Grammar Guy: The back-word world of semordnilaps

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We all know examples of palindromes: taco cat, racecar, kayak, Hannah. A palindrome is a word that, when spelled backward, is the same word. Today, however, I want to delve into the bizarre world of the semordnilap. Get your word-nerd glasses on and push them up the bridge of your nose, because it’s about to get all kinds of nerdy.

While palindromes have this beautiful letter symmetry to them, a semordnilap is actually the word “palindromes” spelled backward. That’s because a semordnilap is a word that, when spelled backward, becomes a different word altogether.

As far as we know, the term “semordnilap” comes from C.C. Bombaugh’s 1961 book “Oddities and Curiosities of Words and Literature.” There goes the title of my next book! Darn you, Bombaugh! In fact, Martin Gardner, the editor of the book, uses the word “semordnilap” in one of his notes to refer to a word spelled backward that forms a different word.

By definition, the word “semordnilap” is itself a semordnilap, as it is the word “palindromes” spelled backward. I told you this was going to be nerdy!

Here are a few examples of semordnilaps that form real words. Our baby is three months old, so we’re back in the world of diapers. The word “diaper” is a semordnilap, as spelling it backward yields “repaid.” When I’m “stressed,” I eat “desserts.” See what I did there?

Just for fun, try to find the semordnilaps in the following sentences:

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No one knew what to call the gateman, as he wore no nametag.

Do cats swap paws?

Former Pacer Reggie Miller gave a recap of the basketball game.

I’ve found some notable semordnilaps whose words were coined by reversing real names or words. The most recognizable example belongs to Oprah, whose Harpo Studios is a production company that spells Oprah backward. For the Disney fans out there: did you know that the name of the sorcerer in “Fantasia” is named Yensid? The name was derived by reversing the letters of Disney. Now that’s some word wizardry!

There’s a salon down the road from my house called Nevaeh Salon, which is heaven spelled backward. According to the baby name website nameberry.com, Nevaeh was in the top 100 most popular girl names in 2020. Semordnilaps are really catching on!

As a lover of lexicon, I don’t mind staring at words until my head spins, and that’s one of the reasons I enjoy playing with semordnilaps. Now I think I’ll kick back and enjoy a regal lager.

Curtis Honeycutt is a syndicated humor columnist. He is the author of “Good Grammar is the Life of the Party: Tips for a Wildly Successful Life.” Find more at curtishoneycutt.com.


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