Erin O'Riordan has been writing compulsively since she could hold a pencil, and professionally since 2006. More than forty of her short stories, essays, and film reviews have been published in numerous magazines and websites. Beltane, her first novel, is the first in the twelve-part "Pagan Spirits" series. The literary character she most closely resembles is an untamed Shakespearean shrew.
(Note: there's a really cool Jason Mraz song called "Wordplay." You may want to download it and listen to it as you read the rest of this column.)
A friend once said to me, "If 'live' spelled backwards is 'evil,' does that mean that it's evil to live?"
"Only if you live backwards," I replied.
To live backwards is impossible, of course. Ever try to eat an omelet, then cook it in the skillet, then mix the ingredients, then break the eggshells, and then finally put whole, unbroken eggs back into the refrigerator? It's not easy. (And if you have tried this, please tell me you have the photos to prove it. I'd love to see them.)
But it is easy (and fun) to make palindromes with words like "live" and "evil." "Rats live on no evil star," for example. Not only is that sentence the same backwards and forwards, but it's also true. Stars, being enormous balls of radioactive gases, are an inhospitable living environment for mammals such as rats. Rats, as far as we know, live only on the earth. (Some may have stowed away in NASA equipment, but they're unlikely to have established colonies on Mars or the moon, what with the lack of oxygen and all. Rats love oxygen.) Whether or not the earth is evil may be debatable, but at least we can all agree that the earth is not a star.
Speaking of mammals that live on no evil star, the unsurpassed loyalty and unconditional love of a dog has caused some to remark that it is no coincidence that "dog" is "God" spelled backwards. "Dog god" is a palindrome, of course, as is "God's dog." Imagine God's dog for a moment, his leash extending up into the clouds. You don't have to imagine it; there's an illustration of it in Ana, Nab a Banana, a terrific book of palindromes and cartoons by Craig Hansen. I know what you're thinking, and yes, it would be more impressive if his name was Craig Giarc.
By the way, do you think God scoops the dog poop, or just zaps it and makes it disappear? Or does God turn it into a new mountain range? If that's the case, God must walk God's dog on other planets. Otherwise the whole earth would be nothing but mountains by now.
My personal favorite palindrome is "Mr. Owl ate my metal worm," which I believe is from one of Jon Agee's books of palindromes. They include Go Hang A Salami, I'm a Lasagna Hog and So Many Dynamos. His titles are palindromes, unlike Mom and Dad Are Palindromes by Mark Shulman and Adam McCauley. You can't make a palindrome with "palindromes," of course, because "semordnilap" is not a word.
But oranges are not the only fruit, and palindromes are not the only kind of wordplay. Take Spoonerisms . . . please. They result from mixing up two sounds in a sentence. According to The New York Public Library Literary Companion, the Reverend William Archibald Spooner (who was English) was famous for them. As when he once meant to toast "the dear old queen" and instead raised a toast to "the queer old dean." A more modern example: Police Chief Wiggum on The Simpsons arrested Sideshow Bob and told his officers, "Bake him away, toys!"
There is also the malapropism, named for a character in a play called The Rivals. Mrs. Malaprop (whose name is a kind of wordplay; mal a propos is French for "out of place") innocently uses wrong words that sound similar to the right words, but mean very different things. As if, for example, you meant to say, "The minister's sermon was very profound today," and instead reported to your grandmother that "the minister's sermon was very profane today," nearly giving your grandmother a heart attack. Shame on you. That's why you should always carry a pocket dictionary.
So should Homer Simpson; he once designed a car and suggested that it have "rack and peanut steering." He meant "pinion," of course. Pinion is a fun word, by the way. It means all of the following: a gear, a wing, and to alter a bird's wing so that it cannot fly. It is unrelated to opinions, or to the edible pine tree seeds known as pinyon nuts. "Pinion" is also a song by Nine Inch Nails. Listen to that one when you're done with "Wordplay."
There are all sorts of fun things we can do with words, from the silly sounds of onomatopoeia to the dangers of the double entendre. Play with your words today!