A new word to add to our ever-lengthening list of Words That Are A Lot More Interesting Than They Seem popped up on HH this week: when written in a circle, the word sensuousnesses can be read both clockwise and anticlockwise.
In answer to a few questions that followed this tweet, alas, this particular linguistic phenomenon has been given no more exciting a name than a “circular palindrome”. Personally, we would have preferred something like gyrodrome, or ambidrome—but perhaps they sound a bit too much like a sporting arena for ambidextrous people, or a testing area for gyroscopes.
Anyway. The concept of the circular palindrome was introduced by wordplay aficionado Dmitri Borgmann in his 1965 book, Language On Vacation. Alongside words that form perfect circles like sensuousnesses, Borgmann also identified what he called “circular reversals”—namely, words that produce entirely new ones when written in a circle.
Reverse, for instance, morphs into reveres when read—well, in reverse. Likewise, itself becomes stifle, and perhaps oddest of all, the surname of Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega spells out Iron Age when read anticlockwise.
All palindromes can of course be read in either direction when written this way—but that’s just because they’re palindromes, and so can be read in both directions even when they’re written in a straight line. What makes circular palindromes so much more interesting is that when they’re written out normally, they don’t behave as a palindrome: it’s only the circular arrangement of the letters that brings out this otherwise hidden facet from their woodwork.
So are there any others? Well, yes, there are. Quite a few, in fact.
Any four-letter word with the pattern xaxb or axbx—like cede, ever, dodo, mime or data—will work as a circular palindrome, but admittedly they don’t make particularly impressive circles. More impressive are longer words like voodoo and hoodoo, which work as circular palindromes simply because their letters are so repetitive (and they’re each built around a palindromic sequence, like OODOO). The same goes for words like boohoo, muumuu, peewee and assess, as well as banana, Rococo and mañana.
Others are less immediately obvious: igniting, acidic, usurer, referee, cicada, brewer, doddered, referrer and redivide are all fine examples of gyrodromic words:
...As are less familiar words like succusses (a medicinal or homeopathic term for the act of shaking a preparation), and cailliach (an alternative spelling of cailleach, a witch from Irish folklore). But for length alone, the 11-letter sensuousnesses remains top of this niche but oddly intriguing list.