Rotonyms & Rotindromes — Visual Homonyms of No Practical Use

A blurred ferris wheel

When you’ve spent as many hours as I have staring at the keyboard trying to remember that one word, you start to notice correspondences in the jumble of letters. Such as how the upright lowercase ‘a’, the kind with the hat, resembles a lowercase ‘e’ rotated 180°, how a ‘u’ or a ‘v’ could be an upside-down ‘n’ and how a ‘nun’ is an upside-down ‘unu’.

You’ve probably noticed these things yourself, because I’m not crazy nor am I particularly original. But you may have not taken the idea as far as I have. I organised it, explored it and gave the phenomenon an obvious name.

Meet the Rotonyms

A word’s rotonym is found by rotating its letters about their centre points, flipping them over, but like an acrobat, not like a mirror. Letters like ‘k’ and ‘f’ that have no rotated equivalent remain unchanged, as do letters like ‘s’ and ‘o’ that appear unchanged by rotation. Below is a list of the letters and their flipped equivalents. You may need to use your imagination and a typeface with an upright ‘a’ and single-storey/open-tail ‘g’ to really buy into this idea.

a → e
b → q
d → p
e → a
g → b
h → y
j → r
m → w
n → u
p → d
q → b
r → j
u → n
v → n
w → m
y → h
cfiklostxz → all unchanged

Using that table we can work out that ‘mom’ is a rotonym of ‘wow’, ‘aha’ is a rotonym of ‘eye’, ‘viva’ is a rotonym of ‘nine’ and other equally exciting translations.

Finding the rotonyms

I wrote a little program to find all the rotonyms. It takes each of the 235,886 entries in /usr/share/dict/words (Mac OS 10.14), converts them to lowercase, flips over their letters (all at once) and checks if it has created a recognisable word. Words that aren’t changed by the process, like oil/oil and zoolitic/zoolitic, are excluded. The result is 580 words that are rarely seen outside of a Scrabble board. Assuming my little program is working correctly. Here’s how that list starts:

aal → eel
ae → ea
aft → eft
agau → eben
ah → ey
aha → eye
ahey → eyah
ahu → eyn
aka → eke
al → el
alawi → elemi
aletap → elated

Lexical Rotonyms

What if instead of rotating the letters in place, we rotate the entire word instead? I’m going to call these lexical rotonyms, and the kind we covered above glyphic rotonyms. I feel like I may be using the wrong adjectives, but let’s just roll with it.

My program found 413 lexical rotonyms. It is a very different set of words to the glyphic rotonyms. Got any theories on that? Some fine examples of lexical rotonyms are:

view → main
aunt → tune
dooms → swoop
gnu → nub
jaded → paper
james → sawer
lentigo → obitual (obitual?)
mold → plow
nail → lieu
oval → leno
savor → jones

Looking at the pairs and squinting you can see the rotonym magic in action.

Rotindromes

There is a very small group of words that remain unchanged when you flip them over. I’m calling this group the rotindromes. It rhymes with boat-in-dromes. There are 52 rotindromes, my favourite being dollop. Just look at it: dollop. Now flip it over: dollop. Isn’t that, in its own insignificant way, great?

Here’s a possibly complete list of rotindromes:

ace ae ailie ake akeake ale alle ase asse ate aune axe decap dip dollop dop ea ecca ekka ella eta etta hoy hy jazzer kunk leal mow nou nu ofo oto otto paced paled palled pod sis sooloos tallet tasset teat tit toot tot tst un unsun weam wim woom yeah

In conclusion

That’s all, folks. I just wanted to draw some attention to this typographic equivalent of backmasking and get other people staring at their screens and squinting to see if there are secret messages hidden upside down in their document.

There are some other variations that I decided to ignore. The letters ‘u’, ‘c’, ‘v’ and ‘n’ are all interchangeable if you allow 90° turns. And if you bend the rules a little more, ‘w’ and ‘m’ could be read as an uppercase ‘E’. Incorporating these would result in more rotonyms, but they would not be as easy to read as the simple, flip ’em all over variety.