What are Anagrams?

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A type of verbal play in which a word or phrase is formed by rearranging the letters of another word or phrase, such as changing united to untied. Adjective: anagrammatic.

It's generally agreed that the best anagrams relate in some meaningful way to the original subject. An imperfect anagram is one in which letters have been omitted (usually for ease of pronunciation).

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

Etymology: From the Greek, "to rearrange letters in a word"

Examples and Observations

  • "My name is only an anagram of toilets."
    (T.S. Eliot)
  • "A thin man ran; makes a large stride, left planet, pins flag on moon! On to Mars!"
    (an anagram for Neil Armstrong's "That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind")
  • 12 Anagrams
    gentleman: elegant man
    Arnold Schwarzenegger: he’s grown large n’ crazed
    Britney Spears: best PR in years
    dormitory: dirty room
    declaration: an oral edict
    New York Times: monkeys write
    evangelist: evil's agent
    Clint Eastwood: Old West action
    Margaret Thatcher: that great charmer
    desperation: a rope ends it
    athletics: lithe acts
    committees: cost me time
  • Caught Anagramming
    "The head of the organic food giant Whole Foods has been caught touting his company and trashing a competitor in anonymous writings on the Internet. Using a pseudonym, Whole Foods CEO John Mackey . . . wrote under the screen name Rahodeb, an anagram for the name of his wife, Deborah."
    (Frank Langfitt, "Lacihte? Whole Foods CEO Spams Under Anagram." NPR, July 12, 2007)
  • Edwin Morgan's "Letter to a French Novelist"
    O satrap!
    O Sparta!
    Oars tap.
    O, a strap?
    A pastor?
    Pa Astor?
    Ps! Aorta.
    Taro sap.
    Art soap?
    A rat sop
    to paras.
    O. A. S. trap.
    So apart!
    – Pat. Rosa.
    (Edwin Morgan, "Letter to a French Novelist," 1964)

Anagrams in Fiction

  • Anagrams in The Da Vinci Code
    "Anagrams are used in popular fiction from time to time. In Dan Brown's best-selling novel The Da Vinci Code (2003, film version 2006), the lines O, draconian devil and Oh, lame saint written in blood on the body of the murdered curator of the Louvre are anagrams of Leonardo da Vinci and The Mona Lisa respectively. The central ideas of The Da Vinci Code can be found in an earlier book, The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln (1982)."
    (Barry J. Blake, Secret Language. Oxford Univ. Press, 2010)
  • Yorick Was Here (and Kilroy, Too)
    "Alas poor Yorlik, I knew him backwards
    "Traditionally, anagrams are warped signifiers which warn their recipients that they contain a buried signified which wants to surface. It is the word backwards which tells the recipient how to unpuzzle the anagram by reading something in the utterance from left to right. The joke is, of course, doubly intertextual. Apart from the clear Shakespearian reference, Yorlik backwards reads Kilroy, the well-known character who is frequently mentioned in the slogan Kilroy was here. . . . [T[he recipient is faced with having to know about an item of world knowledge which is imperative for the complete appreciation of the joke."
    (Delia Chiaro, The Language of Jokes: Analyzing Verbal Play. Routledge, 1992)
  • The Anagrammatick Method in Gulliver's Travels
    "But should this Method fail, recourse might be had to others more effectual, by Learned Men called Acrosticks and Anagrams. First, might be found Men of Skill and Penetration who can discern that all initial Letters have political Meanings. Thus N shall signify a Plot, B a Regiment of Horse, L a Fleet at Sea. Or secondly, by transposing the Letters of the Alphabet in any suspected Paper, who can discover the deepest Designs of a discontented Party. So for example, if I should say in a Letter to a Friend, Our Brother Tom has just got the Piles, a Man of Skill in this Art would discover how the same Letters which compose that Sentence, may be analysed into the following Words; Resist,-- a Plot is brought Home--The Tour. And this is the Anagrammatick Method."
    (Jonathan Swift, Gulliver's Travels, Part III, Chapter Six)

The Lighter Side of Anagrams

  • Lisa: Hey Ralph, want to come with me and Alison to play "Anagrams"?
    Alison: We take proper names and rearrange the letters to form a description of that person.
    Ralph Wiggum: My cat's breath smells like cat food.
    (The Simpsons)
  • Monty Python's Man Who Talks in Anagrams
    Presenter: Hello, good evening and welcome to another edition of "Blood, Devastation, Death, War & Horror." And later we'll be talking to a man who does gardening. But our first guest tonight is a man who talks entirely in anagrams.
    Hamrag Yatlerot: Taht si crreoct.
    Presenter: Do you enjoy this?
    Hamrag Yatlerot: I stom certainly od. Revy chum so.
    Presenter: And what is your name?
    Hamrag Yatlerot: Hamrag, Hamrag Yatlerot.
    Presenter: Well, Graham, nice to have you on the show. Now where do you come from?
    Hamrag Yatlerot: Bumcreland.
    Presenter: Cumberland?
    Hamrag Yatlerot: Staht sit sepreicly.
    (Michael Palin and Eric Idle in Monty Python's Flying Circus, 1972)

Pronunciation: AN-uh-gram

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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "What are Anagrams?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/what-is-anagram-1689089. Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 27). What are Anagrams? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-anagram-1689089 Nordquist, Richard. "What are Anagrams?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-anagram-1689089 (accessed March 31, 2023).