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10 Backwards Words That Ended Up In The Dictionary

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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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10 Facts About Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary
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October 16 is World Dictionary Day, which each year celebrates the birthday of the American lexicographer Noah Webster, who was born in Connecticut in 1758. Last year, Mental Floss marked the occasion with a list of facts about Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language—the enormous two-volume dictionary, published in 1828 when Webster was 70 years old, that established many of the differences that still divide American and British English to this day. But while Webster was America’s foremost lexicographer, on the other side of the Atlantic, Great Britain had Dr. Samuel Johnson.

Johnson—whose 308th birthday was marked with a Google Doodle in September—published the equally groundbreaking Dictionary of the English Language in 1755, three years before Webster was even born. Its influence was arguably just as great as that of Webster’s, and it remained the foremost dictionary of British English until the early 1900s when the very first installments of the Oxford English Dictionary began to appear.

So to mark this year’s Dictionary Day, here are 10 facts about Johnson’s monumental dictionary.


With more than 40,000 entries, Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language was certainly the largest dictionary in the history of the English language at the time but, despite popular opinion, it wasn’t the first. Early vocabularies and glossaries were being compiled as far back as the Old English period, when lists of words and their equivalents in languages like Latin and French first began to be used by scribes and translators. These were followed by educational word lists and then early bilingual dictionaries that began to emerge in the 16th century, which all paved the way for what is now considered the very first English dictionary: Robert Cawdrey’s Table Alphabeticall—in 1604.


In compiling his dictionary, Johnson drew on Nathan Bailey’s Dictionarium Britanicum, which had been published in 1730. (Ironically, a sequel to Bailey’s dictionary, A New Universal Etymological English Dictionary, was published in the same year as Johnson’s, and borrowed heavily from his work; its author, Joseph Nicoll Scott, even gave Johnson some credit for its publication.)

But just as Johnson had borrowed from Bailey and Scott had borrowed from Johnson, Bailey, too had borrowed from an earlier work—namely John Kersey’s Dictionarium Anglo-Britannicum (1708)—which was based in part on a technical vocabulary, John Harris’s Universal English Dictionary of Arts and Sciences. Lexicographic plagiarism was nothing new.


Although he’s best remembered as a lexicographer today, Johnson was actually something of a literary multitasker. As a journalist, he wrote for an early periodical called The Gentlemen’s Magazine. As a biographer, he wrote the Life of Mr Richard Savage (1744), a memoir of a friend and fellow writer who had died the previous year. Johnson also wrote numerous poems (London, published anonymously in 1738, was his first major published work), a novel (Rasselas, 1759), a stage play (Irene, 1749), and countless essays and critiques. He also co-edited an edition of Shakespeare’s plays. And in between all of that, he even found time to investigate a supposed haunted house in central London.


Johnson’s dictionary defined some 42,773 words, each of which was given a uniquely scholarly definition, complete with a suggested etymology and an armory of literary quotations—no fewer than 114,000 of them, in fact.

Johnson lifted quotations from books dating back to the 16th century for the citations in his dictionary, and relied heavily on the works of authors he admired and who were popular at the time—Shakespeare, John Milton, Alexander Pope, and Edmund Spenser included. In doing so, he established a lexicographic trend that still survives in dictionaries to this day.


Defining 42,000 words and finding 114,000 quotes to help you do so takes time: Working from his home off Fleet Street in central London, Johnson and six assistants worked solidly for over eight years to bring his dictionary to print. (Webster, on the other hand, worked all but single-handedly, and used the 22 years it took him to compile his American Dictionary to learn 26 different languages.)


Johnson was commissioned to write his dictionary by a group of London publishers, who paid him a princely 1,500 guineas—equivalent to roughly $300,000 (£225,000) today.


The dictionary’s 42,000-word vocabulary might sound impressive, but it’s believed that the English language probably had as many as five times that many words around the time the dictionary was published in 1755. A lot of that shortfall was simply due to oversight: Johnson included the word irritable in four of his definitions, for instance, but didn’t list it as a headword in his own dictionary. He also failed to include a great many words found in the works of the authors he so admired, and in several of the source dictionaries he utilized, and in some cases he even failed to include the root forms of words whose derivatives were listed elsewhere in the dictionary. Athlete, for instance, didn’t make the final cut, whereas athletic did.

Johnson’s imposition of his own tastes and interests on his dictionary didn't help matters either. His dislike of French, for example, led to familiar words like unique, champagne, and bourgeois being omitted, while those he did include were given a thorough dressing down: ruse is defined as “a French word neither elegant nor necessary,” while finesse is dismissed as “an unnecessary word that is creeping into the language."


    At the foot of page 2308 of Johnson’s Dictionary is a note merely reading, “X is a letter which, though found in Saxon words, begins no word in the English language."


      As well as imposing his own taste on his dictionary, Johnson also famously employed his own sense of humor on his work. Among the most memorable of all his definitions is his explanation of oats as “a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.” But he also defined monsieur as “a term of reproach for a Frenchman,” excise as “a hateful tax levied upon commodities and adjudged not by the common judges of property but wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid,” and luggage as “anything of more weight than value.” As an example of how to use the word dull, he explained that “to make dictionaries is dull work.”


      Listed on page 1195 of his dictionary, Johnson’s definition of lexicographer was “a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge.”

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      Something Something Soup Something
      This Game About Soup Highlights How Tricky Language Is
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      Something Something Soup Something

      Soup, defined by Merriam-Webster as "a liquid food especially with a meat, fish, or vegetable stock as a base and often containing pieces of solid food," is the ultimate simple comfort food. But if you look closer at the definition, you'll notice it's surprisingly vague. Is ramen soup? What about gumbo? Is a soy vanilla latte actually a type of three-bean soup? The subjectivity of language makes this simple food category a lot more complicated than it seems.

      That’s the inspiration behind Something Something Soup Something, a new video game that has players label dishes as either soup or not soup. According to Waypoint, Italian philosopher, architect, and game designer Stefano Gualeni created the game after traveling the world asking people what constitutes soup. After interviewing candidates of 23 different nationalities, he concluded that the definition of soup "depends on the region, historical period, and the person with whom you're speaking."

      Gualeni took this real-life confusion and applied it to a sci-fi setting. In Something Something Soup Something, you play as a low-wage extra-terrestrial worker in the year 2078 preparing meals for human clientele. Your job is to determine which dishes pass as "soup" and can be served to the hungry guests while avoiding any items that may end up poisoning them. Options might include "rocks with celery and batteries in a cup served with chopsticks" or a "foamy liquid with a candy cane and a cooked egg served in a bowl with a fork."

      The five-minute game is meant to be tongue-in-cheek, but Gualeni also hopes to get people thinking about real philosophical questions. According to its description page, the game is meant to reveal "that even a familiar, ordinary concept like 'soup' is vague, shifting, and impossible to define exhaustively."

      You can try out Something Something Soup Something for free on your browser.

      [h/t Waypoint]


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