Obviously we all know words when we see or hear them. There they are, right there doing their thing, giving us all sorts of information – whether we’re eager to receive it or not. But not all words are as obvious as the ones we’re used to seeing and hearing every day. Some words are hiding in plain sight, while others require us to look for them, at least a little bit.

For instance, figuring out how to anagrammatize (yes, that’s an actual word) some words into other words that use all the same letters often takes a fair amount of thinking. While turning “evil” into “live” is easy, it’s more involved to figure out the anagrams of “triangle” (alerting, altering, integral, relating), or that “statement” is an anagram of “testament.”

Actually, “statement” and “testament” are called “synanagrams” since they’re synonyms. And, if there are synanagrams, there must also be antigrams, or words built with the same letters that might be considered opposites of each other, right? For instance, if we rearrange the letters in “astronomers” we can make the phrase “no more stars.”

Besides being found in anagrams, there are many other hidden words lurking elsewhere, such as in compound words, portmanteaus, shrinking words and even in something called kangaroo words.

As you’d expect, there are a few kinds of compound words, including the open compound, such as “ice cream” (the space between the words makes it “open”), the hyphenated compound, such as “brother-in-law,” and the single-word closed compound, such as “doorknob.”

At this point, I have to confess to always having been partial to closed triple compound words. You know, words including: nevertheless, whatsoever, inasmuch, nowadays and notwithstanding. Also there’s the conjunction “sobeit,” which has got to be the shortest triple compound word ever.


Another example of having a word within a word (almost) is the portmanteau. I say almost because since portmanteau words are mash-ups, we hardly ever get two complete words that are connected together. (“Together,” in case you’re wondering, does not qualify as a triple compound word, at least according to the authoritative-sounding nickclaussen.com blog.)

The word “portmanteau” itself is made up by combining part of the French word “porter” (to carry) with “manteau” (cloak) to come up with a case or trunk that opens into two halves. Thus it’s easy to see how “breakfast” and “lunch” came to be crunched into “brunch,” how “smoke” and “fog” became “smog,” and also how we ended up with words like “motel” and “sitcom.”

Besides looking for words in words that have been put together, we can also find lots of short words by examining – and then shortening – some longer ones. Good examples of these words are the ones that appear as we remove one letter at a time from “growing” (rowing, owing, wing, win, in, I), or dissect the closed compound word “therein,” which yields no fewer than a dozen smaller words (herein, there, here, rein, the, her, ere, he, er, re, in, I). And that’s without even rearranging the letters!

And then there’s my favorite type of shrinking words — kangaroo words — that contain all the letters of one of its synonyms (which are called “joey words”), arranged so that these letters appear in the same order in both words. Some letters from “astound,” for instance, can be used to make “stun,” and letters found in “honorable” can be used to spell “noble.”

Even better are twin kangaroo words, which contain two joey words, such as “diminutive” (minute, mini) and “feasted (fed, ate). And better still are grand kangaroo words, which have two joeys, one of which can be made from the other. A good example is “alone” (lone, one), as are “complaisant” (compliant, pliant), and “expurgate” (purge, pure).

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 jlwitherell19@gmail.com.

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