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a word, phrase or sentence which can be read in reverse with a different meaning
'Close kin to the palindrome is the semordnilap, which is a reverse spelling of 'palindromes' … a semordnilap becomes a new word when spelled in reverse. Examples include decaf/faced, deliver/reviled.'www.etymologie.org September 2003
'… you can elicit semordnilapic quality in many words by forming their plural, past tense, etc.'www.wordsmith.org 16th October 2000
The word palindrome is an established term in English, used to refer to words or phrases which read the same in either direction. Simple examples are the word noon, or the phrase navy van, which have exactly the same form and meaning when read in reverse. If the word palindromes is itself read in reverse however, the result is semordnilap, a term coined in recent years to refer to words and phrases which make sense when read backwards, but have a different meaning from when they are read forwards.
some semordnilaps are not coincidental, the term yob was reputedly coined specifically as a semordnilap of the word boy
The semordnilap of the word evil is live, and the semordnilap of the word desserts is stressed. An interesting logical consequence is that two conjoined semordnilaps always result in a palindromic phrase, as illustrated by stressed desserts or live evil. Some semordnilaps are not coincidental, the term yob was reputedly coined specifically as a semordnilap of the word boy.
Note that the term semordnilap is self-referring, i.e. it constitutes within itself the concept it represents.
The British author Michael Quinion seems to have been among the first to give a definition of the term semordnilap, featuring the word in an article for his interesting website, www.worldwidewords.org, in May 2000, though the term is yet to be acknowledged in printed dictionaries. Alternative terms previously used by linguists to refer to the same phenomenon are reversal/reversal pair, inversion and back-word.
Last year saw popularisation of a related term, the noun calendrome and adjective calendromic, as people observed that 2002 was a year with palindromic quality. As the next calendrome won't appear for another 110 years, i.e. the year 2112, it seems likely that such terms will remain fairly obscure in our lifetime!
This article was first published on 5th December 2003.
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