An anagram is a type of wordplay, one in which the letters of a word or phrase are rearranged to create a new word or phrase. It is important when constructing anagrams that the exact same letters are used. The writer can’t take away or add letters to make the anagram easier to finish. When a writer makes an anagram, they do so in order to form another word, not a nonsensical arrangement of words like sometimes appear in word puzzles. The new word may or may not have anything to do with the original. The former is more likely.
Definition and Explanation of Anagram
In literature, anagrams are usually made in order to poke fun at, criticize, or praise a subject. Many are witty, surprising, and amusing, while others may be offensive to the person, or type of person, who’s being addressed. The writer chooses a word or phrase, deconstructs it/them, and then considers all the possible arrangements of the letters. This can be a tricky process, one that some writers will be better at than others. It can also be time-consuming progress if one has to test out arrangements one at a time rather than intuitively knowing how the words might be ordered.
Anagrams Throughout History
Anagrams have been used for centuries, dating all the way back to the third century with the Greek poet Lycophron who is noted as a skilled anagrammatist. One use for anagrams throughout history has been an attempt to decipher meaning through the rearrangement of letters. Some hidden meaning might be unveiled to the person who discovers it.
Another famous anagrammatist, Guillaume de Machaut, is remembered for his anagrams, especially those in Latin. For those who had the time and education, anagrams were often used as a game, one which required concentration and the ability to envision how the word/words might be used differently. They were a popular parlor game in Victorian society and were later used by the surrealists, such as André Breton and Unica Zürn. The former, amusingly, after becoming annoyed with Salvador Dalí’s commercialism, called him by the name Avida Dollars.
Examples of Anagrams in Literature
Hamlet by William Shakespeare
One interesting example of an anagram comes from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, one of his most famous plays. It follows a Danish prince who feigns madness and seeks revenge on his uncle, who killed his father, the king. The name “Hamlet” was chosen as an anagram for Amleth, the Danish prince, on who the story was based.
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J. K. Rowling
A famous contemporary example can be found in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. In the novel, Rowling creates an anagram to disguise the name of the overarching villain, Lord Voldemort. One character acquires a diary belonging to someone named Tome Marvolo Riddle. Later in the novel, the ghost-like character of Tom rearranges his own name to spell out “I am Lord Voldemort.” The anagram helps Rowling to craft what some might consider being the climax of the second novel in the Harry Potter series.
The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown
The Da Vinci Code is another contemporary example. In the novel, Jacques Saunière, a curator at the Louvre Museum in Paris, writes the following anagrams. “O, Draconian devil!” “Oh, lame saint,” and “So dark the con of Man.” These three anagrams translate to “Leonardo da Vinci,” “The Mona Lisa,” and “Madonna of the Rocks.”
Why Do Writers Use Anagrams?
As mentioned above, anagrams are often used to make fun of or criticize a topic. That topic serves as the original word, and when its letters are rearranged, the writer attempts to comment on the topic. These can be amusing or offensive depending on the writer and the reader’s perspective on the anagram. There are examples throughout history in which anagrams have been used as a form of code, obscuring words, organizations, meetings, and more.
It should also be noted that writers have used anagrams throughout history as Pseudonyms or pen names meant to hide their identities. A writer might choose to do this in order to obscure their name and ensure that no one knows who wrote the published work. Alternatively, writers, performers, or entertainers might create pseudonyms purely for entertainment purposes. One of the best-known entertaining examples is Jim Morrison’s pseudonym, Mr. Mojo Risin. Others include musician Damon Albarn’s name rearranged as Dan Abnormal and illustrator Edward Gorey’s rearranged as Ogdred Weary. Another good example is Vladimir Nabokov, the author of the controversial novel Lolita, who includes himself in the story as “Vivian Darkbloom.”
Anagram, Palindrome, or Acronyms?
Palindromes are similar to anagrams in that they require reading words differently than one is used to. Rather than arranging the letters in a different order, palindromes are the same words or phrases spelled backward. These new words are, like anagrams, not nonsense. Instead, they spell the exact same words (or, in some versions, new words). For example, “Civic.”
Acronyms are also related to anagrams. They take a set of words to create new words or phrases. Acronyms are abbreviations using the first letter of words. These then spell out a new word that comes to represent the original phrase. For example, “SCUBA” stands for “Self-contained underwater breathing apparatus.” This is a great example of how acronyms become incorporated into the English language as new words. Or, another example, “LASER,” which stands for “Light Emission by Stimulated Emission of Radiation.”
Related Literary Terms
- Acrostic: a piece of writing in which letters form words or messages. The “acrostic” is most commonly associated with poetry.
- Allusion: an indirect reference to, including but not limited to, an idea, event, or person. It is used within both prose and verse writing.
- Ambiguity: a word or statement that has more than one meaning. If a phrase is ambiguous, it means multiple things.