It’s no secret that I like words a lot (maybe too much sometimes). And what do I like more than words? That’s right, strange words. That being the case, this brief introduction is my way of preparing you for what we’ll take a look at this time – words that are symmetrical, meaning they’re the same (or different, but mostly the same) when looked at from various perspectives.

Let’s start with ambigrams. An ambigram (which was coined by Douglas Hofstadter in 1983) is a word or phrase that is able to be oriented either of two ways and still reads the same. There are two types of ambigrams: rotational and bilateral (also known as “mirror”).

You have a rotational ambigram — also called a “half-turn ambigram” (imagine a word written on the front of a two-blade airplane propeller and then turning the blade halfway around) — when the word you just turned upside down looks the same as it did before you flipped it. One word that sort of works for this (in lowercase, depending on the font that’s used) is “yeah.” Some better choices are: “dollop,” “swims” and the uppercase version of “NOON.”

Bilateral, or “mirror,” ambigrams have what’s called “axial symmetry,” which is fancy talk for a word that reads the same even after you’ve turned it, like a page, to see its backside. (Or held it up to a mirror.) Words including “mom” and “wow,” which are also palindromes, will work in either upper or lower case, but other words, such as “bid” have to be lowercase if they’re going to be the same word when turned around.

Speaking of palindromes, those are words or phrases that can be read forward or backward. For example, after a “tattarrattat” (light knocking) on the door, a salesman might greet a homeowner with “Madam, I’m Adam.” The homeowner might reply, “Sir, I’m Iris.” But she’ll surely send the salesman packing if he spouts such gibberish as “A man, a plan, a cat, a bar, a cap, a mall, a ball, a map, a car, a bat, a canal, Panama.”

Then there are words that don’t have to be palindromes or perform any gymnastics at all to be considered symmetrical. How so? By having something called “horizontal symmetry,” which means that they are made up of letters (usually uppercase) whose bottom halves are a reflection of their top halves. Take “CHECKBOOK” for example.


As you’d expect, there are also words that have vertical symmetry. Take WITHOUT for example. If you write it vertically and then draw a straight line right down through the middle of it, it is easy to see that each letter has symmetry – one side of every letter is a reflection of its other side.

There are actually people out there who look for symmetrically distributed words. Those are words made up of letters that are evenly distributed from opposite ends of the alphabet. For instance, “A” and “Z” are at the ends of the alphabet, so consider them both 1s. “B” and “Y” are next to the ends, so they’re 2s, “C” and “X” are 3s, and so on. This means that “bevy” has a symmetrical distribution of 2552 while “wizard” works out to 491194.

And last but not least, just to prove that there are people out there who are even more obsessed with this stuff than I am, I give you words that someone discovered are the same forward and backward when they’re shown in the dits and dats (which are written as dots and dashes) of Morse code. (As is the case with most palindromes, ignoring spaces and punctuation.)

For example, “intransigence” is spelled: .. -. – .-. .- -. … .. –. . -. -.-. .  While “sopranos” comes out:  … — .–. .-. .- -. — …

Some people have way too much time on their hands.

Jim Witherell of Lewiston is a writer and lover of words whose work includes “L.L. Bean: The Man and His Company” and “Ed Muskie: Made in Maine.” He can be reached at

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