Definition of Anagram

Anagrams are a type of game with words in which the letters of a word, name, or phrase are rearranged to form different words. All of the letters from the original word(s) must be used exactly once in the new configuration to qualify as an anagram.

While any such rearrangement of a word of phrase that results in new words can be considered an anagram, serious anagrammatists try to create new words that somehow comment on the original word(s). For example, one anagram of the name William Shakespeare is “I’ll make a wise phrase,” while an anagram for Emperor Octavian is “Captain over Rome.” These anagrams both relate back to the original subject in a clever way.

Word Games Similar to Anagram

Pangram: A pangram is a sentence that uses every letter of an alphabet at least once. The most famous example in English is “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.” This sentence is often used to display fonts, as it has an example of the way the font looks in every possible letter. A “perfect” pangram would be a sentence that contains every letter from an alphabet just once. This is difficult to achieve in English, but an example would be: “Jocks find quartz glyph, vex BMW.”

Heterogram: A heterogram only allows one usage of any one particular letter. One of the longest words in English that follows this rule is the fifteen-letter word “uncopyrightable.” A perfect pangram such as the one listed above would qualify as a heterogram as well.

Lipogram: A lipogram is a piece of work that excludes a certain letter or letters. While this is easy to achieve on a small scale, it’s much more difficult the longer the work of literature. The most famous example is the 1969 novel La Disparition by Georges Perec, which does not contain the letter e. Gilbert Adair translated the entire 300-page French novel into English, still without using the letter e.

Vocabularyclept poem: In this type of poem, a person takes a poem and rearranges the words to create a new and original poem. This concept has become popular and mainstream through the use of magnetic poetry, in which a discrete group of words is available and can be arrange in numerous ways to create new phrases.

OuLiPo: The Ouvoir de littérature potentielle was a group of mostly French-speaking writers and other intellectuals that formed in 1960. Their goal was to use restrictions such as the ones listed above to write literature. Georges Perec, author of La Disparition, was a member.

Famous Examples of Anagram

Some authors created pseudonyms for themselves by anagramming their given names. For example, Francois Rabelais took on the pseudonym Alcofribas Nasier. Similarly, Jim Morrison of The Doors called himself Mr. Mojo Risin’, an anagram of his name.

Other anagrammatists have created notable rearrangements, such as:

  • Clint Eastwood = Old West action
  • Alec Guinness = Genuine class
  • George Bush = He bugs Gore
  • The theorem of Pythagoras = He has that geometry proof

Significance of Anagram in Literature

Anagrams have been popular for many centuries, possibly even back to the third century BCE. The Greek poet Lycophron, who lived in Alexandria at the time of King Ptolemy II Philadelphus (283 BCE-246 BCE), was supposed to have been a skilled anagrammatist. Those who were not poets have used anagrams to ascertain the “hidden” meanings of names since the time of Moses.

The medieval French poet and composer Guillaume de Machaut was quite fond of anagrams, and there are several examples of anagrams in his works. Anagrams were especially popular in Latin and were a favorite game for the literate. An anagram example is rearrangement of the Latin phrase Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum (Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you) to Virgo serena, pia, munda et inmaculata (Serene virgin, pious, clean, and spotless).

Anagrams have continued in popularity throughout the centuries, being a favorite parlor game in Victorian society. The surrealists of the 20th century loved anagrams, especially as they got more absurd, turning the idea of a name’s “hidden” meaning on its head. The German author Unica Zürn, who was friends with several famous surrealists, composed numerous anagram poems. When the leader of the surrealists, André Breton, thought that his fellow surrealist Salvador Dalí had become too influenced by commercialism, he took to calling Dalí by an anagram of his name, Avida Dollars.

Nowadays computers can assist the hobbyist anagrammer, though they lack the ability to create the nuanced rearrangements that have made anagrams so popular for the last couple millennia.

Examples of Anagram in Literature

Example #1

I am Lord Voldemort.

(Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J. K. Rowling)

J. K. Rowling uses an anagram as a key plot point in her best-selling Harry Potter series. The reader first meets Lord Voldemort in the first book of the series. In the second book, Ginny Weasley becomes possessed by a diary belonging to Tom Marvolo Riddle. Later in the book, Tom rearranges the letters in his name to be “I am Lord Voldemort,” revealing himself to be Harry Potter’s arch-nemesis. One interesting aspect of this anagram is that translators of Harry Potter had to make modifications to Tom Riddle’s name for the anagram to work. For example, the Spanish translator of Harry Potter changed Tom’s original name to be “Tom Sorvolo Ryddle” so that the anagram could be “Soy Lord Voldemort” (“soy” meaning “I am”).

Example #2

A hard, howling, tossing water scene.
Strong tide was washing hero clean.
“How cold!” Weather stings as in anger.
O Silent night shows war ace danger!

The cold waters swashing on in rage.
Redcoats warn slow his hint engage.
When star general’s action wish’d “Go!”
He saw his ragged continentals row.

Ah, he stands – sailor crew went going.
And so this general watches rowing.
He hastens – winter again grows cold.
A wet crew gain Hessian stronghold.

George can’t lose war with’s hands in;
He’s astern – so go alight, crew, and win!

(Washington Crossing the Delaware by David Shulman)

This incredible sonnet, which David Shulman composed in 1936, contains fourteen lines, each of which is an anagram of the title. The poem contains an amazing amount of content considering the restrictions—all of the lines are relatively different while all relating back to the original theme of Washington’s famous crossing of the Delaware.

Example #3

“Hamlet” is an anagram that Shakespeare chose to refer obliquely to the Danish prince Amleth, on whose legend Shakespeare based his play. A modern anagrammatist named Cory Calhoun has brilliantly taken the most famous lines from Hamlet’s monologue and rearranged them into a commentary on the monologue.

Original text from Shakespeare’s Hamlet:

To be or not to be, that is the question;
Whether tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune…

Calhoun’s anagram:

In one of the Bard’s best-thought-of tragedies, our insistent hero, Hamlet, queries on two fronts about how life turns rotten.

Example #4

O, Draconian devil! = Leonardo da Vinci
Oh, lame saint! = The Mona Lisa
So dark the con of Man = Madonna of the Rocks

(The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown)

Dan Brown’s bestselling novel The Da Vinci Code opens with the murder of a curator at the Louvre Museum in Paris. This curator, Jacques Saunière, writes the above anagrams in his own blood as clues before dying. All three of the anagrams relate to Leonardo da Vinci.

Test Your Knowledge of Anagram

1. What is the correct anagram definition?
A. A sentence that contains all the letters of a particular alphabet.
B. A phrase in which a particular letter is used only once.
C. A rearrangement of the letters in a word, name, or phrase to create a new word, name, or phrase.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #1″]
Answer: C is the correct definition of anagram. A refers to a pangram and B to a heterogram.[/spoiler]

2. Which of these is an anagram for Florence Nightingale?
A. Angel of the reclining
B. Flit on, cheering angel
C. Lice, filth, gangrene, no?
D. All of the above.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #2″]
Answer: D. All three phrases are anagrams of Florence Nightingale.[/spoiler]

3. The French for “I am Lord Voldemort” is Je Suis Voldemort. Knowing this, which of the following would the French translator of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series have used as a name for Tom Riddle?
A. Tom Elvis Jedusor
B. Tom Sujolo Riddle
C. Tom Jivolo Ruddle
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #3″]
Answer: A is the correct anagram for “Je suis Voldemort.” The other two options cannot be rearranged to make this phrase.[/spoiler]