Fun with Words: 5 Types of Wordplay

October 30, 2020

Do you know your pangram from your lipogram or your palindrome from your semordnilap? At Mission Translate, we love language and the different ways it can be used to communicate. Here are five forms of English wordplay that we’ve enjoyed puzzling over.

1) Palindrome

Probably the wordplay that is the most widely recognised; a palindrome is a word, sentence or even a longer piece of work that is the same written forwards as it is backwards.

Examples include:

Do geese see God?

A nut for a jar of tuna

Madam, in Eden, I’m Adam.

In 1986, Lawrence Levine published the longest palindromic novel. However, unsurprisingly at 31,954 words, the book entitled ‘Dr. Awkward & Olson in Oslo‘ is mainly gibberish.

2) Semordnilap

When a collection of letters reads as two entirely different words when spelt forwards and backwards, it is called a semordnilap. If ‘semordnilap’ itself is reversed, you will discover it reads as palindromes. This phenomenon makes the term self-referring, i.e. demonstrating in itself what the concept represents. Backronyms, volvograms and reversgrams are other names used for this sort of wordplay.

Examples include:

Stressed – desserts

Drawer – reward

Some of these word pairs are created intentionally. For example, ‘boy’ was reversed to ‘yob’ and was thought to be coined as a form of backward slang that came about in the Victorian times.

Disney had fun with this form of wordplay too, naming the sorcerer in Fantasia, Yensid. We’ll leave you to work out what that spells when reversed.

3) Pangram

A pangram is a phrase or sentence that uses all 26 letters of the alphabet, with the aim of repeating as few letters as possible.

A famous example that most people come across in school is, ‘The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy sleeping dog.’ However, although this sentence is one of the most sensible, it does contain a few duplicates.

Those that are able to achieve all 26 letters without duplicates are a little more nonsensical. For example:

Pack my box with five dozen liquor jugs

Bright vixens jump; dozy fowl quack

Discover more examples here

4) Lipogram

In contrast to pangrams, a lipogram looks to create a phrase, sentence or even a whole piece of work, whilst avoiding one or more letters.

A well-known example is Ernest Vincent Wright’s ‘Gadsby: A story of more than 50,000 words that does not contain the letter e’. This piece of work is quite a feat considering ‘e’ is the most commonly used letter in the alphabet and is particularly useful when using pronouns, (he, she, they and we) and words constructed in the past tense (by using ‘ed’).

Ross Eckler Jr was a writer, who rewrote the nursery rhyme, ‘Mary had a little lamb’ in lipogram versions avoiding designated letters. Read his creations here.

5) Rebus

A form of wordplay seen in modern times on signs and number plates, as well as in games, such as dingbats and catchphrase. The concept is that the sounds of the words are represented in pictures, letters or symbols.

A common one is IOU – I owe you

And, using letters is NE1410S – Anyone for tennis?

Further examples, using symbols and pictures can be found here.

These English examples of wordplay are fun to read, but when it comes to multilingual communication, they do not translate well. When creating content for translation into other languages, keeping the original text more direct ensures a more accurate and successful result. Humour, puns and other forms of wordplay are culturally specific, and these concepts will often miss the mark with an audience from a different global market.

Find out more about how Mission Translate can support you with your global translation requirement.

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