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  • Paul Anthony Jones


(n.) a word formed by reversing the letters of another word

A few days ago, HH posted this:

Which raised this perfectly appropriate question:

The short answer is, yes, there is. But the long answer is much more interesting than that.

First things first: the ana of ananym is the Ancient Greek word ana, which was variously used to mean “back”, “up”, “on”, “around”, “towards”, “throughout”, and just about every other preposition you can imagine. It’s the same root we find in words like anagram, analogy, and analysis, as well as in less obvious places like Anabaptist (literally “one who baptizes again”) and Anastasia (which means “resurrection”).

The suffix –nym comes from the Greek word for “name”, onyma, which is same the root as in much more familiar words like synonym, acronym, pseudonym, and anonymous. So put together, an ananym is literally a “back-name”—a word formed by reversing another.

That’s all well and good, of course, but what about examples? Well, admittedly the majority of ananyms in use today tend either to be proper nouns or fictional inventions: think of Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Corporation, Samuel Butler’s Erewhon (a partially-reversed “nowhere”), or Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood, which was set in the fictitious Welsh town of “Llareggub” (you can work that one out yourself).

There are towns called Adanac in Canada, and Saxet in Texas. The girls’ names Segna and Nevaeh are “Agnes” and “heaven” spelled backwards. Dioretsa is the fantastically fitting name of an asteroid with an appropriately retrograde orbit. And if you’ve ever thought searching the internet was too straightforward, why not try searching for everything backwards over on elgooG?

None of those will find its way into a dictionary any time soon, of course, but that’s not to say that a handful of ananyms haven’t already done so. Mho, for instance, is the name of a unit of electrical conductance, coined in opposition to the ohm, a unit of resistance. Likewise, physicists have at their disposal units called the yrneh (a unit of inverse electrical inductance, derived from the henry) and the daraf (a measure of electric elastance, as opposed to the farad, a measure of electrical capacitance). And not wanting to be outdone by the Michael Faradays of this world, in 1921 the US engineer Frank Bunker Gilbreth invented the therlbig, a unit of work in a time-and-motion study. (Shameless plug—there’s more about these in the HH fact book…)

By far the most familiar example of an ananymic word, however, is yob, which has been in use since the mid-nineteenth century to refer to what might otherwise be called a hooligan or a ruffian. It’s earliest record comes from a Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant, and Vulgar Words, compiled by the English lexicographer John Camden Hotton in 1859.

The full title of Hotton’s dictionary (which is far too long to reproduce here) goes on to explain that it contains “glossaries of two secret languages spoken by the wandering tribes of London”: the two “languages” in question are Cockney rhyming slang and back slang, a much less familiar variety of Victorian English slang that, as its name suggests, involved reversing the letters of everyday words and phrases to form an entirely new (and fairly unintelligible) vocabulary. In other words, back slang it was a language of ananyms.

Like rhyming slang, back slang is thought to have first emerged in the early 1800s. In his dictionary, Hotton describes it as “the secret language of the costermongers”, suggesting that it probably originated among London street traders as a means of communicating exclusively with one another, presumably to the bewilderment of their customers.

So in London back slang, a cabbage was an edgabac, an orange was an edgenaro, and pinurt pots were turnip tops. An exis-yeneps was sixpence, a rouf-yeneps was fourpence, and earth gens was three shillings. After a good day’s trading, one seller might comment that he’d made a doogheno hit, or a “good hit” (“implying that he did well at market, or sold out with good profit,” according to Hotton), after which he might treat himself to a top o’reeb (a “pot of beer”), if not a track (a “quart”)—and end up quite kennurd (“drunk”), or at least flatch kennurd (“half-drunk”).

And second from last on Hotton’s list is yob, listed as Victorian back slang for “boy”:

collection of victorian back slang from hotton's dictionary

Although linguistic techniques like back slang have remained in use ever since (and are by no means exclusive to English), aside from yob you’d be hard-pushed to find anyone who still uses any of the other entries on Hotton’s list, or to find any similar terms listed in a modern dictionary.

Contrast that with rhyming slang, which has contributed considerably more to our language than meets the mince-pies: if you’ve ever used your loaf (loaf of bread = “bead”), 86ed something (eighty-six = “nix”), took the mickey out of someone (Mickey Bliss = “take the piss”), or called them a berk (Berkley Hunt = look that one up yourself), then you’ve used rhyming slang, whether you’ve realized it or not.

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