What is the history of anagrams?
(Adapted from The Anagram Dictionary by Michael Curl,
Words at Play by O.V. Michaelsen and The Oxford Guide
to Word Games by Tony Augarde. Additional information about
Lycophron from Zoran Radisavlevic)
The earliest times
According to some historians, anagrams originated in the 3rd
century B.C. with the Greek poet Lycophron who lived in Alexandria
at the palace of King Ptolemy Philadelphus (285-247 B.C.). In
a poem on the siege of Troy entitled Cassandra, Lycophron
included anagrams on the names of Ptolemy and his queen, Arsinoë:
- PTOLEMAIOS = APO
(made of honey - an allusion to the king's goodness)
- ARSINOH = ION
Other sources suggest that Pythagoras, in the 6th century
B.C., used anagrams to discover philosophical meanings. Plato
and his followers believed that anagrams revealed divinity and
destiny. Alexander the Great dreamed that he had caught a satyr
the night before the siege of Tyre. His advisor Aristander told
him it was a good omen, because the Greek word for satyr (SaturoV) anagrammed to "Tyre is yours"
(Sa TuroV). The city fell the next
13th to 15th century
Anagrams were often believed to have mystical or prophetic
meaning in Roman and early Christian times. History then mentions
little of anagrams until the 13th century A.D., when the Jewish
Cabalists again found mystical significance in them.
In the Middle Ages in Europe, anagrams became popular. However,
the principal activity of anagrammatists in the Middle Ages was
in forming anagrams on religious texts. For example:
- Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum
[Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee]
Virgo serena, pia, munda et immaculata
[Virgin serene, holy, pure and immaculate]
- Quid est veritas?
[Pilate's words to Jesus, "What is truth?"]
Est qui vir adest!
[Jesus' possible reply, "It is the man before you!"]
Many authors anagrammed their names to make pseudonyms. François
Rabelais became Alcofribas Nasier, Calvinus became Alcuinus (v
and u being interchangeable in Latin), and each wrote abusive
anagrams of the other's names.
16th to 18th century
In the , scientists such as Galileo,
Huygens and Robert Hooke often recorded their results in anagram
form to stake their claim on a discovery and prevent anyone stealing
In the days of French Royalty, Louis XIII appointed a Royal
Anagrammatist, Thomas Billon, to entertain the Court with amusing
anagrams of people's names.
This era bought about the vogue of anagramming the
names of famous people. Lewis Carroll gave us:
- Florence Nightingale =
Flit on, cheering angel.
- Disraeli =
I lead, sir.
- William Ewart Gladstone =
Wild agitator means well!
This era also gave us the cognate anagram, where the anagram
has some relevance to the original, e.g.
- Astronomer =
The British naturalist, Sir Peter Scott, believed in the existence
of the Loch Ness Monster so strongly that in 1978 he gave it
a scientific name. Scottish MP Nicholas Fairbairn later anagrammed
- Nessiteras rhombopteryx =
Monster Hoax by Sir Peter S.
Apart from their frequent appearances in cryptic crosswords and puzzles journals,
anagrams seem to have gone out of favour in recent decades. We have an archive of famous 19th and 20th century anagrams in our Hall of Fame.
However, with the advent of the Internet and the creation of sophisticated
this trend has been reversed and the art of anagramming is once
For further reading on the history of anagrams: Wikipedia entry on anagrams.