- Paul Anthony Jones
(adj.) penitent, embarrassed by one’s actions; the longest example of an ‘altered’ word
Who doesn’t love a bit of wordplay? And a lovely example of precisely that turned up on Haggard Hawks this week: ashamed is apparently the longest word that can be alternately topped and tailed, until just a single letter remains—crucially, with a new word created at every stage in between.
So behead the word ASHAMED, and you’ll get SHAMED. Knock the end off that you’ll get SHAME. Behead that, and you’ll have HAME (part of the collar of a draught horse, FYI). And continue in that manner through HAM and AM, and you’ll eventually end up just with A.
As we mentioned on Twitter, words that can withstand these alternating beheadments and curtailments are properly called ‘altered’ words by wordplay enthusiasts. And, as we also mentioned, the 7-letter example ashamed is apparently the longest of these words yet to be discovered. But are there any more? Well, the short answer is yes. The longer answer is that you need to either bend the rules, or have a pretty robust vocabulary to accept them.
One alternative to the ashamed example is MORALES, which reduces down through ORALES, ORALE, RALE, RAL and AL to leave just a final letter A. An orale (pronounced “o-RAIL-ee”) is a type of Ancient Roman veil (of which orales is the plural), while ral is a local Newfoundland dialect word for a troublemaker, and al is an obscure alternative name for the Indian mulberry, borrowed into English from Hindi. Accept all of those, and morales ties with ashamed as another 7-letter altered word.
Another suggested example is GUNITES, the plural of gunite, a soft mixture of cement and sand so called because it can be applied using a hose-like gun. Alternately top and tail that, and you’ll follow the pattern UNITES, UNITE, UNIT, NIT, IT, and finally I. There’s a question mark hanging over whether gunite can actually be pluralized—but if it can, gunites is another 7-letter example.