Shashi Tharoor on anagrams

Dubai - Shashi Tharoor's World of Words is a weekly column in which the politician, diplomat, writer and wordsmith par excellence dissects words and language

By Shashi Tharoor

Published: Thu 5 Aug 2021, 6:11 PM

Crossword addicts — cruciverbalists, as they are known — are, of course, familiar with anagrams. An anagram is a word created by rearranging the letters of another word: “smart”, for instance, can be anagrammed as “trams” or “marts”. Cryptic crossword clues love this device.

But this isn’t a column about solving crosswords. What I enjoy about anagrams is that they can be fun. Rearranging letters can often give you amusing results. The word “anagram” itself can be converted into “nag a ram”! “The Morse Code” anagrammed says “here come dots” (dashes, too, of course). Similarly “Statue of Liberty” is “Built to stay free”. Place names can be anagrammed too. If you fall sick in “San Diego”, you need to be “diagnose”d! And many a gambler “salvages” what he can in “Las Vegas”.

Names of celebrities are a favourite subject of amusing anagrams. The Simpsons animated television series had a character who created anagrams out of famous people’s names that described them as well — thus “Alec Guinness” became “genuine class”. Not long ago in India, BJP supporters of the Prime Minister put it out that following this rule, “Narendra Modi” was “a Rare Diamond”. They were quickly corrected by language mavens who pointed out that the Prime Minister’s name contained an extra N and the correct anagram would be “Rare Diamond? Na!” Political opponents of the PM leapt at the opportunity to come up with “a modern drain” and “a modern nadir”. The nastier ones wrote, “Married and No!” The PM’s fondness for the Indian diaspora (“Non-Resident Indians”, or NRIs, many of whom are among this column’s readers) led to suggestions of “Narendra Modi” being anagrammed as “Adore Damn NRI” and “Dear Nomad NRI”. Of course, his supporters also hit back with “Dream and Iron” as the qualities he represents to the nation.

Politics and history offer fertile grounds for anagrammers. Thus “Adolf Hitler” can become “Hated for ill”. Mao Tes-tung’s historic Long March finds its echoes in the anagram of “Chairman Mao” as “I am on a march.” The 19th century British statesman Benjamin “Disraeli” can simply declare “I lead, Sir!” In his era, “Flit on, cheering angel” would be a suitable exhortation for “Florence Nightingale”. American liberals suggest that “Ronald Reagan” was “a darn long era”. Those who remember the bitter and long-lasting standoff between George W. Bush and Albert R. Gore in the US Presidential elections of 2000 will not be surprised to realise that “George Bush” can be anagrammed as “he bugs Gore”! And “Indira Gandhi” can be made to say “Hi, grand India”!

Literature has often resorted to anagrams. Most famously, in Jonathan Swift’s classic Gulliver’s Travels, Gulliver visits “Tribnia”, an anagram of “Britain”. And it turns out the place is also known as Langden, which of course is an anagram of “England”! Many will say that The Da Vinci Code, by Dan Brown, is not literature, but he employs a clever literary device in ensuring that the clues left by the museum curator who is murdered at the beginning of the novel are concealed in anagrams. Thus “O, Draconian devil” points to “Leonardo da Vinci”; “Oh, lame saint” aims at “The Mona Lisa”; and “Madonna of the Rocks” is rendered as “So dark the con of man.”

But the world of entertainment offers larger possibilities. Did you know that “Britney Spears” could become “Presbyterians”? “Clint Eastwood” stands appropriately for “Old West action” and “Beyoncé Knowles” becomes, less kindly, a “cowboy’s kennel”. The Spanish actor “Antonio Banderas” is “bandana sorter”; the American actor “Bill Murray” is converted to something he decidedly is not, a “burly mailer”. Is “Channing Tatum” “cunning at math”?

These anagrams may seem irrelevant to the people whose names we’re mangling, but three clever anagrams relating to the world of music seem more apt. “Madonna Louise Ciccone”, that material girl, can be rendered as “one cool dance musician”. “Justin Timberlake” could be “I am a jerk, but listen.” And an anagram that, to the true believer, is also a tautology, is: “Elvis” “lives”!

Which word lends itself to the most anagrams? “Spear” can be rearranged in 13 different ways, including itself: apers, apres, asper, pares, parse, pears, prase, presa, rapes, reaps, spare, and spera, as well as spear. The possibilities are endless. Next week we’ll discuss a variant of anagrams — aptagrams. Stay tuned.

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