Levidrome: The Word That Launched a Thousand Erroneous Stories
What is the word for a word, that when spelled backwards, is a different word? For example, “stop” spelled backwards is an entirely different word, “pots”, or “pool” and “loop, or “tar” and “rat”, or perhaps the most thought-provoking, “god” and dog.” And no, it isn’t a palindrome, because a palindrome is a word or phrase that has the same meaning whether you read it forward or backwards, for example “redder,” “redivider” or “level.”
In November 2017, a six-year-old Canadian boy, Levi Budd, claimed to invent a “new” word to describe these types of words because according to his research no word previously existed. The inspiration came when Budd was riding in the car with his mother. The car came to a stop sign, and Budd looked at the word, noting that “stop” spelled backwards was “pots.” Budd asked his mother, “What do you call a word that becomes another word when you spell it backwards?” According to several stories, Budd and his parents googled the question and, for whatever reason, found no relevant results. Budd’s father then contacted Merriam-Webster and the “dictionary company said no word currently existed.” Based on this cursory research, they concluded that there was no word for this type of wordplay, so Budd decided to coin a word of his own: levidrome, pronounced “leh VEE drome,” a compound word/eponym formed from “levi” (his name) and “drome” (derived from the Greek word dromos meaning “a running.”) On closer inspection, the neologism is nonsensical when you consider that the Greek word palindrome, meaning “a running back,” only makes sense with its two key parts: palin meaning “back” and dromos meaning “a running”). That is to say, levidrome, literally means “Levi running.”
Unfortunately, as is often the case with many stories in the social media-obsessed digital age, the story of a young boy who was inspired to coin a new word for a form of wordplay that supposedly did not have a word, captivated the click-hungry media. The story, without the appropriate fact-checking that should occur before any article is published or broadcast, was picked up by newspapers, blogs, and television stations around the globe, with the misleading headline which was some variation of “Young boy invents a new word, where no word currently exists!” (Google part of that headline and you will encounter dozens of cookie-cutter stories.) The misleading story gained the enthusiastic support of general readers, teachers, and librarians. So not only did the news departments not do the appropriate critical analysis and appropriate fact-checking, neither did the readers. Soon, celebrities like William Shatner and Patricia Arquette (who have no expertise in lexicography, by the way) offered their support, bringing the cascading series of errors to an entirely new level in a world already turned upside down by President Trump’s Orwellian assault on the truth: what is real news and fake news? Many surveys confirm a disturbing trend: most Americans get their news and opinions from social media which are generally not objective or fact-checked.
The media frenzy around this story also prompted the family to launch a well-intentioned online campaign on YouTube (“Levidrome — Let’s get this word in the dictionary”) to convince the editors of American and British dictionaries to include Budd’s neologism in their respective dictionaries immediately. The only research presented in that video was a single post from Snopes on the word emordnilap, introduced in 2014 on a Tumblr blog, that is not really an official word (lexicographers would call this a nonce word). Inexplicably, the editors of Merriam-Webster and the Oxford Dictionaries (who should know better!) mistakenly stated that Budd’s word was completely “new,” strongly implying that there was no existing word for this form of wordplay. Further, they agreed to monitor the usage of levidrome to see if it should be included in a future update of their respective dictionaries. WTF?
Here is what is truly astonishing about the response from the dictionary representatives — there actually is a word for this type of wordplay — and it is more than 56 years old. Oops! Had the editors, librarians, teachers, and fact-checkers done their work properly, they would have quickly discovered that famous writers, like Lewis Carroll and James Joyce were fascinated by this clever wordplay, and it led two writers who specialize in word puzzles to coin the term in the 1960s. And perhaps even curioser, is that this word has the most synonyms of any type of wordplay. As Shatner’s colleague, Leonard Nimoy (playing Spock) would say, “Fascinating!” Thus to make or support the claim that someone (regardless of their age) invented a new word for a basic form of wordplay is not supported by the extensive facts. In short, the news headlines and premise for this viral story are completely erroneous and that is no fault of Budd: everywhere he turned, he received wrong information and many teachable opportunities were lost. Let’s resurrect those teachable moments.
First, before we get to the word, let’s state an important fact in the digital era: you can never assume that Google’s search capability does not have limitations. We will begin with the obvious: how you frame a question is key to obtaining relevant search results. Most of the times, a researcher must reframe the question based on results, and find new avenues of queries based on initial search results. Persistence and patience inevitably pay off. Next, it is important to understand that not every relevant or important book has been digitized — there are huge gaps of knowledge in the internet (visit Google Books to see how many books do not have searchable content); that’s why libraries with printed books are still relevant. As most researchers know, the key to finding the best answers is knowing where to look — the needle in the haystack conundrum. The more exact the search, the more exact the results. And in this case, the answer is easily found online when you zero in on a particular part of the haystack, as it were. The answer Budd was looking for is also easily found in books, particularly books on wordplay or word puzzles. Why the reporters and fact-checkers didn’t simply consult any wordplay reference book or consult any logophile or lexicographer (like Richard Lederer, Susie Dent, David Crystal, or Anu Garg — to name just a few) who would be very familiar with these terms and books is, well… puzzling.
Faithful readers of Atkins Bookshelf may recall the blog post titled “What is a Semordnilap?” (March 29, 2017) that defines the word (“A semordnilap is a word, phrase, or sentence that can be read in reverse with a different meaning.”), its etymology (“The word is a reverse spelling of palindromes”) and lists many examples. The word was coined by the brilliant mathematician and epeolatrist (a worshipper of words) Martin Gardner and C. C. Bombaugh in 1961. That definition can be found on page 345 of Oddities and Curiosities of Words and Literature (1961, Dover Publications), written by Gardner: “The term ‘semordnilap’ (palindromes spelled backwards) has been proposed for words that spell different words in reverse. A more general word for that type of word is known as a “word reversal” or “”reversible word.” An example of a word reversal pointed out by Lewis Carroll in his novel Sylvie and Bruno is the word evil, which is live backwards. Other examples are straw, stop, maps, bard, strap, reknits, lamina, deliver, son (see James Joyce’s Ulysses, Random House edition, page 584), dessert, devil, mood, repaid.”
I own a private library of more than 8,000 books, so it definitely helps to own more than 1,000 dictionaries and books about words — because the answer is in several of them. Let’s take a closer look at some other well-established books on words. Any word-lover will be familiar with Willard Espy who wrote several definitive books on wordplay. One of his most popular works, The Game of Words (published in 1971, and republished in a new edition in 1980) lists the definition of semordnilap on page 185: “Semordnilap is ‘palindromes’ spelled backwards, and stands for words that spell different words in reverse. Some examples: devil, repaid, stressed, rewarder, straw, maps, strap, reknits, deliver, bard, and doom.” More recently, Anu Garg, creator of the Word A Day website and author of A Word A Day (2003), has an ENTIRE CHAPTER on semordnilaps. On page 66, Garg writes: “ Desserts is an example of a reversible word, which when read from the right yields another word… Another word for reversible words is semordnilap, a self-referential word coined by reversing the word palindromes.” Garg then presents five examples with detailed notes: avid, ogre, debut, nonet, and rebus. The editors of the Oxford dictionaries might be surprised to know that their very own John Simpson, Chief Editor of the OED, who must have read a draft of the book, wrote a very nice blurb for this particular book. Snap!
For any major topic, you can be sure there is a specialized dictionary for that topic (and even though these words have been established and used for decades, they do not necessarily make it into standard published dictionaries for a variety of reasons, but mostly because they are “peripheral to common English use”). For dedicated fans of word puzzles, there are two respected dictionaries: Wordplay: A Curious Dictionary of Language Oddities by Chris Cole (1999) and The Dictionary of Wordplay by Dave Morice (2001). The second dictionary is considered the most, um… definitive. When you turn to the “S’ section, on page 185 you will find the following definition: “semordnilap: a synonym for REVERSAL. The term is the word palindromes spelled in reverse.” Now if you look up REVERSAL, this gets really curioser — not only do you get the definition, you also get the 18 synonyms. Yes, you read that correctly: EIGHTEEN. Here is Morice’s entry for reversal: “a word or phrase that spells another word or phrase in reverse… This wordplay form has had more names that any other. ‘Anagram’ oddly enough, was the original term. Other terms include: ananym, antigram, drow, half-palindrome, heterodrome, inversion, palinode, recurrent palindrome, retronym, reversagram, reversal pair, reversible, reversible anagram, reversion, semordnilap, sotadic palindrome, and word reversal.”
Now, let us move from printed reference books to online references. Fortunately, online there are dozens of free and subscription-based dictionaries. If you want to find the definition of semordnilap you can turn to the Free Dictionary, Your Dictionary, Wikipedia, Wiktionary, and WordHippo — to name just a few. Also, as most lexicographers and word-lovers know, the most common online tool to study the usage of word in the English corpus is Google Ngram Viewer. It is an absolute marvel: an online search engine that tracks the use of a single word or phrase found in all printed books (about 5 million!) from 1500 and 2008 and plots it on a graph. I would direct the editors of MW and Oxford to look at semordnilap on ngram. There, they will see its introduction in late 1950s, with a gradual climb and peaks in the 1960s and 1980s, levelling off with consistent usage from the mid-90s to the present. This meets the definition of consistent usage by a large number of people over a long period of time. However, just a simple Google search of the word, returns 3,330 results confirming its widespread usage: dictionary definitions, articles, videos, puzzles, etc.
Budd would have been delighted to know that there are many people who love wordplay like semordnilaps: there is even a Semordnilap Generator tool online. The website for word puzzle lovers, dCode, based in France, presents many tools to generate anagrams, palindromes, etc. So anyone with the proper knowledge could have directly Budd here and said, “Not only is there a name for the wordplay you were asking about, but here is a tool to help you discover more of them. Have fun and learn how fascinating the English language is.”
Given all this extensive support for the established use of the word semordnilap, it is extremely puzzling why the editors of the Merriam-Webster and Oxford Dictionaries failed to acknowledge it or even research it. Their responses to Budd and his family make little sense. Had they spent some time researching it, they could have found the correct answers and turned this into a teachable moment by explaining to Budd that the word he was looking for was “semordnilap” and that his word, although technically “new” is simply a synonym for an existing word and it could be added to the list of existing synonyms for that word if widely used over a long period of time. Incidentally, in the world of lexicography any word that is uttered (even every “word” babbled by an infant) is technically “new.” However, just because it is uttered, doesn’t mean that it will end up in a standard dictionary. (Incidentally there are many dictionaries in print that capture the “secret” language of families: words that are used and known only by a particular family.) The dictionary representatives should also have immediately directed Budd to Urban Dictionary, a crowdsourced online dictionary, that exists to capture new words contemporaneously. The Urban Dictionary corpus is astounding: as of 2014 it contains more than 7 million words! But don’t get too excited — most are nonce words that will never make it into a standard English dictionary. Realize that unabridged dictionaries contain only 170,000–470,00 words and most lexicographers accept that the English language contains about 1 million words. This number is confirmed by The Global Language Monitor which estimates that the number of words in the English language as of January 1, 2020 is 1,057,376.
Let’s return, for a moment, to one of the culprits in this story: the media. Clearly, the media compounded the errors of incomplete research and incorrect information by circulating misleading headlines. With the benefit of good research the headlines should have read: “Young boy coins new synonym for semordnilap” or “Young boy coins new synonym for a popular form of wordplay” or “Young boy coins another word for a word reversal.” And that, of course, invites the question: is this really newsworthy? Consider that individuals, young and old, add more than 2,000 new words to Urban Dictionary each day! Imagine the avalanche of news stories from 2,000 contributors per day… “Grandmother invents a new word for when a daughter doesn’t return her phone calls” or “Middle-aged pensioner invents a new word for a butt-dial.”
What other teachable moments were lost? Clearly Budd is interested in language. The editors of the dictionaries could have also recommended books about how words become words: David Crystal’s fascinating introductions to lexicography, Words Words Words and How Language Works, as well as Sidney Landau’s comprehensive Dictionaries: The Art and Craft of Lexicography. In short, there are so many ways they could have rewarded his initiative, properly highlighted the joys of linguistics, and underscored the importance of critical analytical skills and thorough research.
Launching a social media campaign to brand words with your own name raises an important lexicographic issue that was not addressed by any of the television and online news stories that were inebriated by the nectar of this narrative, so to speak. Although a thorough discussion exceeds the focus of this article, let us briefly ponder this scenario. As you know, there are many celebrities with an incredible amount of followers. For the sake of this discussion, let us say that a celebrity who we will call “Mary Doe” has over 60 million followers. What if she read the levidrome story and said, “Hey, I had that very same observation about words a month ago. I should be the one to coin a name for it: I will name it ‘maridrome.’” So she launches a social media campaign to call a word reversal a maridrome. With more than 60 million followers, it will not take long for the word to begin trending rather dramatically; soon it will be picked up by media outlets, and quickly overtake the levidrome campaign. In a matter of hours, her followers will begin using it in a perfunctory sentence, like “I like maridromes” or “Mary’s maridrome are awesome.” Then Mary Doe, emboldened by the success of that campaign, moves onto other words. “I don’t like the word ‘television’ I am going to call it ‘marivision.” The editors of dictionaries are being overwhelmed with emails and posts on their websites. You see where this is headed? But let’s take this linguistic chaos to another level. Imagine there exists another celebrity with more followers than Mary. He sees what Mary is doing, and not wanting to be overshadowed, he starts renaming all of Mary’s words and adding some new ones by launching his own social media campaigns. You get the point: natural sustained usage vs. targeted brief social media campaigns to directly influence the English language. Should all of these newly coined words/eponyms get into the dictionary? Is this what the editors of dictionaries want to encourage?
The wonderful thing about the English language is that it is always evolving, adding new words and discarding old ones. And as lexicographer Peter Mark Roget discovered more than a 150 years ago, you can never have enough synonyms for words. Although levidrome is not a “new” word for something that didn’t have a word, as we have learned, it is a new synonym for a word reversal. Time and natural usage will determine if semordnilap needs a 19th synonym because language evolution is inherently unpredictable (there are entire books about why some words catch on and other don’t). However, Budd’s word sheds new light on a form of wordplay that has long fascinated word lovers, like Carroll and Joyce. And just as important, the story of a word that launched a thousand erroneous stories emphasizes the importance of thorough scholarship and research using online information as well as actual printed books and providing children with the best answers to learn critical analytical thinking and inspire lifelong learning.
Atkins is a founder of one of the nation’s highest-ranked K-8 charter schools. He has raised three life-long learners who have exceptional research and writing skills. If you enjoyed this: please visit Atkins Bookshelf, the blog that explores the world of ideas — through books, movies, music, quotations, and the English language — for the intellectually curious. The goal of Bookshelf is to educate, entertain, and inspire. At the heart of Bookshelf is a lifelong love of books and literature. Join here: https://atkinsbookshelf.wordpress.com