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9 Words Created by Spelling Other Words Backwards

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Disney/YouTube

“Semordnilap” is a word playfully coined by word-game lovers some time 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 9 words, besides semordnilap, expressly built to be semordnilaps.

1. Yensid

The name of the sorcerer in Fantasia is “Disney” spelled backwards. The animators modeled the character after Walt Disney himself.

2. Harpo

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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?).

3. Nacirema

A 1956 anthropology paper by Horace Mitchell Miner examined “body ritual among the Nacirema,” an exotic tribe in North America. Their culture was founded by a hero named Notgnihsaw, who, in a feat of strength, once threw a piece of wampum over the Pa-To-Mac river. The Nacirema (“American” backwards) have become well known for what they tell us about the study of “exotic” cultures.

4. Erewhon

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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 Yram (Mary) and Senoj Nosnibor (Robinson Jones).

5. Yob

“Boy” in reverse. British slang for a young man who is up to no good.

6. Silopanna

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.

7. Retsof

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The little hamlet of Retsof, New York was named for William Foster, owner of a salt mine company there. Retsof is now best known for a 1994 salt mine collapse.

8. Llareggub

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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.

9. Serutan

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 “provide peristaltic stimulation.”

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Big Questions
Where Does the Phrase '… And the Horse You Rode In On' Come From?
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Horses may no longer be the dominant form of transportation in the U.S., but the legacy of our horseback-riding history lives on in language. When telling people off, we still use the phrase “... and the horse you rode in on.” These days, it’s rare for anyone you're telling to go screw themselves to actually be an equestrian, so where did “and the horse you rode in on” come from, anyway?

Well, let’s start with the basics. The phrase is, essentially, an intensifier, one typically appended to the phrase “F*** you.” As the public radio show "A Way With Words" puts it, it’s usually aimed at “someone who’s full of himself and unwelcome to boot.” As co-host and lexicographer Grant Barrett explains, “instead of just insulting you, they want to insult your whole circumstance.”

The phrase can be traced back to at least the 1950s, but it may be even older than that, since, as Barrett notes, plenty of crude language didn’t make it into print in the early 20th century. He suggests that it could have been in wide use even prior to World War II.

In 1998, William Safire of The New York Times tracked down several novels that employed the term, including The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1972) and No Bugles, No Drums (1976). The literary editor of the latter book, Michael Seidman, told Safire that he heard the term growing up in the Bronx just after the Korean War, leading the journalist to peg the origin of the phrase to at least the late 1950s.

The phrase has had some pretty die-hard fans over the years, too. Donald Regan, who was Secretary of the Treasury under Ronald Reagan from 1981 through 1984, worked it into his official Treasury Department portrait. You can see a title along the spine of a book in the background of the painting. It reads: “And the Horse You Rode In On,” apparently one of Regan’s favorite sayings. (The book in the painting didn't refer to a real book, but there have since been a few published that bear similar names, like Clinton strategist James Carville’s book …and the Horse He Rode In On: The People V. Kenneth Starr and Dakota McFadzean’s 2013 book of comics Other Stories And the Horse You Rode In On.)

It seems that even in a world where almost no one rides in on a horse, insulting a man’s steed is a timeless burn.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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language
How to Say Merry Christmas in 26 Different Languages
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“Merry Christmas” is a special greeting in English, since it’s the only occasion we say “merry” instead of “happy.” How do other languages spread yuletide cheer? Ampersand Travel asked people all over the world to send in videos of themselves wishing people a “Merry Christmas” in their own language, and while the audio quality is not first-rate, it’s a fun holiday-themed language lesson.

Feel free to surprise your friends and family this year with your new repertoire of foreign-language greetings.

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