9 Words Created by Spelling Other Words Backwards
By Arika Okrent
Semordnilap is a word playfully coined by word-game lovers sometime in the mid-20th century. While a palindrome reads the same way backwards or forwards (otto, kayak), a semordnilap (itself a semordnilap of “palindromes”) makes a completely different word when spelled backwards. While there are some semordnilaps that arose by chance (desserts-stressed, diaper-repaid), there are many, like “semordnilap,” that were created on purpose, usually to not-so-covertly hint at the words they happen to be reversing. Here are nine words, besides semordnilap, expressly built to be semordnilaps.
The name of the sorcerer in Fantasia is “Disney” spelled backwards. The animators modeled the character after Walt Disney himself.
Oprah has a magazine titled by her first initial (O), a network named with both her initials (OWN – The Oprah Winfrey Network) and a production company that spells her name backwards (Harpo). Her next project will have to be an anagram (Pharo?).
A 1956 anthropology paper by Horace Mitchell Miner examined the “Body Ritual Among the Nacirema” [PDF], an exotic tribe that lives between “the Canadian Cree, the Yaqui and Tarahumare of Mexico, and the Carib and Arawak of the Antilles.” Their nation was founded by a hero named Notgnihsaw, who did two incredible things: He once threw a piece of wampum over the Pa-To-Mac river, and also “[chopped] down ... a cherry tree in which the Spirit of Truth resided.” The Nacirema have become well known for what they tell us about the study of “exotic” cultures. (Hint: Nacirema is “American” backwards, and that’s not the only semordnilap you’ll find here.)
Backwards spelling in the name of satire has a long history. The title of Samuel Butler’s 19th-century novel lampooning the society of the time was meant to be “nowhere” spelled backwards, but the h was moved out of place. It features properly backwards-named characters like Senoj Nosnibor (Robinson Jones).
“Boy” in reverse. British slang for a young man who is up to no good.
Sometimes, when you’re naming streets, you just run out of ideas. In Annapolis, Maryland, there’s a little street called Silopanna Road. There’s also a big Annapolis summer music festival called Silopanna.
The little hamlet of Retsof, New York, was named for William Foster, owner of a salt mine company there. Retsof is now known for a 1994 salt mine collapse [PDF].
The Dylan Thomas play Under Milk Wood was set in a Welsh village with a Welsh-looking name, Llareggub. In fact, it was not a Welsh name at all, but “bugger all” backwards.
In the old days, companies had to be discreet and a little coy in ads for constipation remedies. Serutan’s tagline asked customers to “read [it] backwards,” emphasizing that their product was the natural way to “[get] you regular and [keep] you regular.”
A version of this story ran in 2014; it has been updated for 2021.