10 Backwards Words That Ended Up In The Dictionary


If a palindrome is a word that reads the same backwards as forwards, then a semordnilap is a word that spells out a different word when read backwards, like stressed and desserts, or diaper and repaid. That definition makes the word semordnilap a semordnilap itself—but whereas most semordnilaps are little more than sheer coincidence, a word or name that is intentionally invented by reversing another existing word is properly called an ananym.

Words coined by reversing others aren’t quite as rare as they might seem. It’s a technique used to invent everything from place names, like Adanac in Canada and Adaven in Nevada, to first names: the Scots name Segna is thought to have been invented by (mostly) reversing the name Agnes, while Nevaeh, coined by reversing the word heaven, recently crept into the top 100 girls’ names in America. It’s also a popular source of brand names, like Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Productions. Fiction writers too often call on ananyms when it comes to inventing characters and settings, like Samuel Butler’s Erewhon (a mangled reversal of nowhere) or Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood (set in the fictional Welsh village of Llareggub, a none-too-subtle reversal of “bugger all”). And when a mysterious Hungarian aristocrat named Count Alucard turns up in New Orleans in the 1943 film Son of Dracula—well, you can guess what happens next.

Besides all the brand names and proper nouns, however, a handful of ananyms and semi-ananyms have backed their way into the dictionary—including the 10 explained here.

1. YOB

In 19th century English, back-slang was the name of a popular word-forming technique that created jokey replacements for everyday words by reversing their letters or sounds. So a fire was an “erif,” cabbage became “edgabac,” a policeman was a “namesclop,” and a birk was a house (derived from a reversal of “crib”). While many modern words have been suggested as originating from the back-slangers of Victorian England, the only one to definitely survive in current usage is yob.


Yarg is a cow’s-milk cheese made in Cornwall that is unique in that it’s wrapped in a layer of nettle leaves before being left to mature. The cheese’s recipe is credited to a local dairy farmer whose surname, Gray, was reversed to give the cheese its name.

3. MHO

If the ohm is a unit of electrical resistance, then its reverse, the mho, is a unit of electrical conductance; appropriately enough, while the Greek letter omega (Ω) is used to represent the ohm, an upside-down omega is used to represent the mho. Sadly the mho is not universally accepted in scientific literature, and the official SI unit of conductance is instead the siemens.


Just like the mho and the ohm, the daraf is a unit of electrical elastance coined by reversing the name of the SI unit of electrical capacitance, the farad. The daraf too isn’t universally employed; its accepted equivalent is just called the “reciprocal farad.”


In 1921, an American engineer named FB Gilbreth and his wife Lillian published a landmark report on workplace efficiency, now credited with introducing the very first time-and-motion study. By observing the movements of bricklayers, Gilbreth theorized that every physical operation carried out in a workplace could be divided into 16 basic movements: search, find, select, grasp, transport loaded, position, assemble, use, disassemble, inspect, pre-position, release, transport empty, rest for overcoming fatigue, unavoidable delay, and avoidable delay (later, researchers have added one or two more to the list). He called these basic divisions of action therbligs—a reversal (albeit a partial one) of his surname—and concluded that employers looking to get the best out of their workforce should, in Lillian's words, “study your man, determine what product he can best make, give him the working conditions, machines and materials that are best suited to him,” and in that way, “you may expect success.”


According to the Oxford English Dictionary, yarooh is “a humorous stylized representation of a cry of pain.” It’s credited to the English writer Charles Hamilton, who, under the pen name Frank Richards, created the word for his popular Billy Bunter comic strip in 1909. As a cry of anguish, as opposed to joy or excitement, Hamilton apparently came up with the spelling yarooh by reversing the letters of hooray.


Introduced in the mid-19th century, atled is the entirely appropriate name of an inverted form, ∇, of the triangular Greek letter delta, Δ, that’s used in some branches of mathematics to represent gradient. Like the mho and the daraf before it, however, the name atled isn’t universally used—the more usual name for this symbol is nabla, the Greek name of a type of harp shaped like an inverted triangle.


In 1920s slang, kayo was used as a humorous replacement for “OK,” coined by reversing the sounds of the two letters rather than the letters of the word okay itself (it was possibly influenced by the boxing KO, a term that was coming into common usage at the exact same time).


In the mid-1960s, the British conceptual artist John Latham coined the word skoob to refer to a pile of books destined to be destroyed. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, Latham’s skoob was intended to be “a gesture against the proliferation and undue veneration of the printed word,” but in introducing the term he gave us a general word for “the ceremonial burning of a book or books.”


A term coined by Oxford professor of sociology Jonathan Gershuny, Allerednic syndrome is essentially the reversal of the Cinderella story. As such it describes to a successful woman who marries an equally successful man and in doing so is forced to give up her career and status to act as a full-time mother or housewife. Or, as Cherie Booth, wife of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, once put it, “You know the story: the prince marries the princess, and turns her into a scullery maid.”

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5 Fascinating Facts About Koko the Gorilla
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After 46 years of learning, making new friends, and challenging ideas about language, Koko the gorilla died in her sleep at her home at the Gorilla Foundation in Woodside, California on June 21, 2018. Koko first gained recognition in the late 1970s for her ability to use sign language, but it was her friendly personality that made her a beloved icon. Here are five facts you should know about the history-making ape.


Francine "Penny" Patterson, then a graduate student at Stanford University, was looking for an animal subject for her inter-species animal communication experiment in the early 1970s when she found a baby gorilla at the San Francisco Zoo. Originally named Hanabiko (Japanese for "fireworks child," a reference to her Fourth of July birthdate), Koko took to signing quickly. Some of the first words Koko learned in "Gorilla Sign Language," Patterson's modified version of American Sign Language, were "food," "drink," and "more." She followed a similar trajectory as a human toddler, learning the bulk of her words between ages 2.5 and 4.5. Eventually Koko would come to know over 1000 signs and understand about 2000 words spoken to her in English. Though she never got a grasp on grammar or syntax, she was able to express complex ideas, like sadness when watching a sad movie and her desire to have a baby.


Not only did Koko use language to communicate—she also used it in a way that was once only thought possible in humans. Her caretakers have reported her signing about objects that weren't in the room, recalling memories, and even commenting on language itself. Her vocabulary was on par with that of a 3-year-old child.


Koko was the most famous great ape who knew sign language, but she wasn't alone. Michael, a male gorilla who lived with Koko at the Gorilla Foundation from 1976 until his death in 2000, learned over 500 signs with help from Koko and Patterson. He was even able to express the memory of his mother being killed by poachers when he was a baby. Other non-human primates have also shown they're capable of learning sign language, like Washoe the chimpanzee and Chantek the orangutan.


Koko received many visitors during her lifetime, including some celebrities. When Robin Williams came to her home in Woodside, California in 2001, the two bonded right away, with Williams tickling the gorilla and Koko trying on his glasses. But perhaps her most famous celebrity encounter came when Mr. Rogers paid her a visit in 1999. She immediately recognized him as the star of one of her favorite shows, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, and greeted him by helping him take off his shoes like he did at the start of every episode.


Koko was never able to have offspring of her own, but she did adopt several cats. After asking for a kitten, she was allowed to pick one from a litter for her birthday in 1985. She named the gray-and-white cat "All Ball" and handled it gently as if it were her real baby, even trying to nurse it. She had recently received two new kittens for her 44th birthday named Ms. Gray and Ms. Black.

The Curious Origins of 16 Common Phrases

Our favorite basketball writer is ESPN's Zach Lowe. On his podcast, the conversation often takes detours into the origins of certain phrases. We compiled a list from Zach and added a few of our own, then sent them to language expert Arika Okrent. Where do these expressions come from anyway?


Bus token? Game token? What kind of token is involved here? Token is a very old word, referring to something that’s a symbol or sign of something else. It could be a pat on the back as a token, or sign, of friendship, or a marked piece of lead that could be exchanged for money. It came to mean a fact or piece of evidence that could be used as proof. “By the same token” first meant, basically “those things you used to prove that can also be used to prove this.” It was later weakened into the expression that just says “these two things are somehow associated.”


1944: A woman standing on a soapbox speaking into a mic
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The soapbox that people mount when they “get on a soapbox” is actually a soap box, or rather, one of the big crates that used to hold shipments of soap in the late 1800s. Would-be motivators of crowds would use them to stand on as makeshift podiums to make proclamations, speeches, or sales pitches. The soap box then became a metaphor for spontaneous speech making or getting on a roll about a favorite topic.


The notion of Tom fool goes a long way. It was the term for a foolish person as long ago as the Middle Ages (Thomas fatuus in Latin). Much in the way the names in the expression Tom, Dick, and Harry are used to mean “some generic guys,” Tom fool was the generic fool, with the added implication that he was a particularly absurd one. So the word tomfoolery suggested an incidence of foolishness that went a bit beyond mere foolery.


chimp eating banana

The expression “go bananas” is slang, and the origin is a bit harder to pin down. It became popular in the 1950s, around the same time as “go ape,” so there may have been some association between apes, bananas, and crazy behavior. Also, banana is just a funny-sounding word. In the 1920s people said “banana oil!” to mean “nonsense!”


If something is run of the mill, it’s average, ordinary, nothing special. But what does it have to do with milling? It most likely originally referred to a run from a textile mill. It’s the stuff that’s just been manufactured, before it’s been decorated or embellished. There were related phrases like “run of the mine,” for chunks of coal that hadn’t been sorted by size yet, and “run of the kiln,” for bricks as they came out without being sorted for quality yet.


The Law's Delay: Reading The Riot Act 1820
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When you read someone the riot act you give a stern warning, but what is it that you would you have been reading? The Riot Act was a British law passed in 1714 to prevent riots. It went into effect only when read aloud by an official. If too many people were gathering and looking ready for trouble, an officer would let them know that if they didn’t disperse, they would face punishment.


Hands down comes from horse racing, where, if you’re way ahead of everyone else, you can relax your grip on the reins and let your hands down. When you win hands down, you win easily.


The silver lining is the optimistic part of what might otherwise be gloomy. The expression can be traced back directly to a line from Milton about a dark cloud revealing a silver lining, or halo of bright sun behind the gloom. The idea became part of literature and part of the culture, giving us the proverb “every cloud has a silver lining” in the mid-1800s.


The expression “you’ve got your work cut out for you” comes from tailoring. To do a big sewing job, all the pieces of fabric are cut out before they get sewn together. It seems like if your work has been cut for you, it should make job easier, but we don’t use the expression that way. The image is more that your task is well defined and ready to be tackled, but all the difficult parts are yours to get to. That big pile of cut-outs isn’t going to sew itself together!


A grapevine is a system of twisty tendrils going from cluster to cluster. The communication grapevine was first mentioned in 1850s, the telegraph era. Where the telegraph was a straight line of communication from one person to another, the “grapevine telegraph” was a message passed from person to person, with some likely twists along the way.


The earliest uses of shebang were during the Civil War era, referring to a hut, shed, or cluster of bushes where you’re staying. Some officers wrote home about “running the shebang,” meaning the encampment. The origin of the word is obscure, but because it also applied to a tavern or drinking place, it may go back to the Irish word shebeen for a ramshackle drinking establishment.


Pushing the envelope belongs to the modern era of the airplane. The “flight envelope” is a term from aeronautics meaning the boundary or limit of performance of a flight object. The envelope can be described in terms of mathematical curves based on things like speed, thrust, and atmosphere. You push it as far as you can in order to discover what the limits are. Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff brought the expression into wider use.


We say someone can’t hold a candle to someone else when their skills don’t even come close to being as good. In other words, that person isn’t even good enough to hold up a candle so that a talented person can see what they’re doing in order to work. Holding the candle to light a workspace would have been the job of an assistant, so it’s a way of saying not even fit to be the assistant, much less the artist.


Most acids dissolve other metals much more quickly than gold, so using acid on a metallic substance became a way for gold prospectors to see if it contained gold. If you pass the acid test, you didn’t dissolve—you’re the real thing.


What kind of wire is haywire? Just what it says—a wire for baling hay. In addition to tying up bundles, haywire was used to fix and hold things together in a makeshift way, so a dumpy, patched-up place came to be referred to as “a hay-wire outfit.” It then became a term for any kind of malfunctioning thing. The fact that the wire itself got easily tangled when unspooled contributed to the “messed up” sense of the word.


Carpet used to mean a thick cloth that could be placed in a range of places: on the floor, on the bed, on a table. The floor carpet is the one we use most now, so the image most people associate with this phrase is one where a servant or employee is called from plainer, carpetless room to the fancier, carpeted part of the house. But it actually goes back to the tablecloth meaning. When there was an issue up for discussion by some kind of official council it was “on the carpet.”


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