Shashi Tharoor on aptagrams

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By Shashi Tharoor

Published: Thu 12 Aug 2021, 5:45 PM

Last updated: Thu 12 Aug 2021, 8:37 PM

Last week we looked at anagrams. Today, we go one step further and examine aptagrams — anagrams that incorporate the meaning of a word. You can, for instance, convert the letters of the word “astronomer” into “moon starer”.

The word aptagram is a neologism, coined near the end of the 20th century from a combination of the Latin word aptus, meaning connected, and the English word “anagram”. Creating an aptagram is a fun way of fooling around with words, but there’s surely a limit to how many meaningful coinages you can come up with that both make sense and retain the original sense of the word you are breaking up. The trick is to rearrange the letters of the word into another word or phrase that conveys a related idea or even, as with “moon starer”, define the word (in this case, “astronomer”) that you are turning into an aptagram. You have to use every letter in the one word to create the other for it to qualify as an aptagram. “Tones” and “notes” (in the musical sense) are aptagrams of each other. So are “angered” and “enraged”. One clever phrase I came across turns “debit card” into “bad credit”. Another transforms “laptop machines” into “Apple Macintosh”.

The most famously historic aptagram isn’t in English, but in Latin. In a biblical passage, Pontius Pilate asks Jesus “what is truth?” — or in Latin, ‘quid est veritas?’ Jesus responds with an aptagram of the question: ‘est vir qui adest’ meaning, “it is the man who is here”. Brilliant, even if it didn’t save Him from the Cross.

Some aptagrams can be pretty witty: converting “dormitory” into “dirty room” could only have been coined by a parent, and “customers” as “store scum” by an exhausted salesman! A conservative would convert “a gentleman” to “elegant man” and “revolution” into “love to ruin”. An irritated freelancer might have changed “editor” to “redo it”, which editors often ask you to do, and “irritated” itself becomes “rat, I tried”, which is guaranteed to offend most editors.

Some come close, but not quite: “the evil eyes” can become “vile, they see”, but there’s something artificial about the aptagram. The same, perhaps, with “slot machines” rendered as “cash lost in me”. Changing “dictionary” to “indicatory” isn’t grammatical enough to qualify, and “laudatory” to “adulatory” seems too obvious to elicit any applause. “Lotus louts” might be anagrams for BJP-affiliated rowdies, but not aptagrams, since “lotus” and “louts” don’t always connote the same thing!

Some aptagrams are clever but don’t quite work: “schoolmaster” doesn’t really mean “the classroom”, though both use up the same set of letters. (On the other hand, if the schoolmaster gives an errant pupil “nine thumps” in the classroom, that could be aptagrammed into “punishment”!) To “listen” is to be “silent”, whereas in “conversation”, you find “voices rant on”.

The Harry Potter series has a character called Tom Marvolo Riddle whose name is an aptagram of “I am Lord Voldemort”, the series’ villain. This “inside joke” is a key part of one book’s story line, but with the Harry Potter books being translated into 68 languages, publishers around the world were forced to devise ingenious aptagrams that would mean the same thing. They found the solution in changing the name of the character to something that could be aptagrammed into “I am Lord Voldemort” in their own language. (So in French, for instance, Tom Marvolo Riddle becomes Tom Elvis Jedusor, so that his name is still an aptagram of “Je Suis Voldemort”). This worked in all the Romance languages, which changed the character’s names into various aptagrams of the phrase “I am Lord Voldemort” in their own languages — but when it came to Chinese, which uses characters and not letters, the translator was stumped. The publisher had to resort to a footnote to explain that English has something called aptagrams!

The cleverest aptagram of all, perhaps, is transforming “eleven plus two” to “twelve plus one”, which apart from using all the letters, is also mathematically accurate. The more you try, however, the more contrived the exercise becomes (“brush” as “shrub”, for instance) which is why aptagrams haven’t widely caught on. It could still work as a party game for bored English “teachers”, who could become “cheaters” by using the Internet to do their work for them!

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