What makes a good anagram?
by William Tunstall-PedoeThe only rule in recreational anagramming is that the letters
must be perfect (i.e. your discoveries must actually be anagrams!). However, clearly some anagrams are better than others. This page
attempts to explain what makes one anagram superior to another!
Recreational anagramming is all about uncovering examples which appeal to the emotions of
the reader. Various emotional responses are possible but the most important ones to induce are amazement and wonder!
If the anagram is so perfect and
so apt that it is almost impossible to believe that it is there as a coincidence then you have
unambiguously discovered a gem. This feeling that some kind of super-natural force must be at
work in the way names and letters of the subject have come about is sometimes referred to as the
wow-factor. The more that the reader feels that the anagram has been
contrived by taking liberties with grammar, choice of words and even the wording
of the subject text, the more believable the coincidence, the less strong the wow-factor and the less good the anagram.
Almost all the criteria for judging an anagram stem from this basic principle.
Other goals are also important for some anagrams and some people. Humor is an important one and although
what makes something funny is almost impossible to define, in anagramming, humor frequently (but not exclusively) comes from satirizing celebrities and institutions. In some people there is an
extremely strong sense of schadenfreude after discovering that someone has been unwittingly wandering
around all their lives with a name that hides a rude message! This is especially the case
if that person is a celebrity or politician! (Much of my interest in anagrams was originally motivated by the
excellent anagrams that sometimes appeared in the letters page of the satirical magazine Private Eye
and the Anagram Genius software was given special abilities
to find satirical anagrams if directed to do so by its user.)
The following is a more specific list of what makes an anagram good:
- Meaningfulness. Most random combinations of words don't mean anything. Some combinations
of words communicate something very strongly and very naturally. The best anagrams are in this latter
- Relevance. The best anagrams are highly relevant to their subject. The stronger
the mental link that can be made between the subject and anagram the better the anagram. For example,
the anagram "The Cold War deterrent" is perfectly meaningful but unfortunately any
relevance to its subject "The World Trade Center" is a stretch. However, "One cool dance musician"
is completely relevant to "Madonna Louise Ciccone"
so this anagram is superior.
Ideally the relevance should be obvious without any explanation. If you have to explain why the anagram
is clever, it probably isn't.
- Repetition/Mixing of letters. The wow-factor is usually diminished if the anagram and subject
contain the same (or substantially) the same words. Anagramming, after all, is about uncovering hidden
messages. If they aren't hidden, the wow-factor is lessened.
- Grammatical defects. If the grammar in the anagram is poor, it can appear
contrived and this substantially diminishes the power of the anagram.
- Contrived spelling. Minor defects such as using "o'" instead of "of" or "'n'"
instead of "and" are occasionally acceptable but generally making anagrams work by taking liberties
with normal spelling practices is a serious defect.
- Contrived wording of the subject. This is usually a major defect. The subject
being anagrammed should be completely natural and something that is familiar and that you would expect to hear in day to day
life. Any suspicion that the wording of the subject has been tinkered with to make the anagram
work generally destroys the wow-factor. Variations on a subject (such as a person's name with and
without middle names, titles etc.) are fine but they must be completely fair. Normally subjects are nouns
(or noun phrases). There are some exceptions if the text is totally familiar and defined (such as
famous advertising slogans). Generally, however, other phrases can sound like they have been
contrived to make the anagram work even if they are grammatical and true.
- Interjections. Use of interjections ("Hi!", "Oh!", "Wow!") are a good technique
for finding anagrams as they mop up letters without affecting the grammatical context of anything
following them. Heavy use of them, however, can make the anagram appear contrived and diminish
- Length. There is some debate in anagramming circles about the value of
very long anagrams. Some people enjoy making anagrams of entire poems or long quotes. Although
some of these can be extraordinary the task of anagramming is far easier the more letters you start with and it
is reasonable to think of the art of making very long anagrams (100 letters or more) as a kind of constrained creative
writing rather rather than the discovery of gems. For
this reason long anagrams need to be especially perfect in their use of grammar and the
naturalness of the prose. Although the wow-factor (as defined above) is less strong the more letters
you start with, it is certainly possible to be filled with admiration for the skill (and persistence)
of the author.
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