Wordplay

Before you read this page, turn it upside down and you will notice two things. One, what I am writing right now is unreadable. Two, the words that are used as illustrations can still be read. Sometimes the word is the same right side up and upside down. But sometimes it's a different word. For example, if you write "MOW" in uppercase letters on a piece of paper and turn it upside down it's the same word, but "MOM" upside down is "WOW."

If you write "dad" in lowercase letters and turn it upside down, you'll get "pap." (Just give the "a" one small tweak, by attaching a tail to its top, and it looks like an "a" both ways.)

Welcome to the crazy, upside down world of "inversions." Inversions are graphical designs that spell out a word as presented, but also in another direction. Some word inversions, such as "MOM" and "NOON" can be written forward and backward. But words like that are rare.

Most inversions are created by people who enjoy art, symmetry, geometry, and calligraphy (fancy handwriting) - people such as Scott Kim. Mr. Kim designs visual puzzles and games using inversions. He's good at making words read legibly both right side up and upside down.

Mr. Kim designs all kinds of inversions. Some of his designs are based on his own name, some are based on friends' names, and some are based on the names of famous people. (For examples of Mr. Kim's work, you can visit his website at www.scottkim.com).

Another word for "inversion" is "ambigram." ("Ambi" means both, and "gram" means letter). The word ambigram was coined in 1983 or 1984 by a group of friends. They were trying to describe word images that could be read in different directionsand orientations - such as words that can be read when reflected in a mirror.

Douglas Hofstadter was one of the people who first used the word ambigram. Mr. Hofstadter likes to design ambigrams for his friends. He's the one who turned my name, Sue Wunder, into an ambigram at the bottom of this page. You can read it right side up. Or you can read it with a mirror by placing the side of a mirror along the dotted line that divides the "U." If my name were simply typed out on a piece of paper, like the words on this page are, it would not make sense when reflected in a mirror. That's what makes ambigrams fun: You have to be creative to make it work.

How do you go about creating ambigrams? Experiment with one letter at a time. Write a letter of the alphabet on a piece of paper and turn it upside down or hold it up to a mirror. See what happens. Add some creative lines or curves to your letter so that it can be read two ways. Then try small words or phrases.

A few lower- and uppercase letters are the same right side up or upside down. Other letters turned upside down will make different letters. For example, "M" and "m" invert to "W" or "w"; "d" inverts to "p"; "H," "I," "N," "O," "S," "X," and "Z" are the same right side up and upside down. And "n" upside down is "u," while "u" upside down is "n."

The trick to inverting the names of friends or family members is to find ways to stretch or tweak each letter. That way, letters that don't ordinarily form inversions, such as the letter "a," will work two ways. Try it for yourself, and have fun with it.

There are numerous types of inversions, or ambigrams. The most common ones are words that can be read both right side up and upside down. These are called rotational inversions. Usually, rotational inversions spell the same thing when flipped around, such as "Wordplay," at the top of this page. (Turn the image upside down to see for yourself.)

Another type of inversion is words that can be read by holding an image to a mirror. See Sue Wunder, below. (Place the edge of a small mirror on the dotted lines.)

When words are linked to form different words, they are known as chain inversions. These most often appear in circular patterns. "Perfection," at right, is a chain inversion. It repeats the same word over and over.

One of the rarest inversions is called figure-ground. These are words that can be read in the spaces in between the letters of another word. There aren't many around, though, because they're so complex. "Glenn," is an example of a simple figure-ground inversion. The black letters form the words, and so do the white letters when they're viewed upside down.

Sources: 'Wordplay,' by John Langdon, Broadway Books; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ambigram; www.ambigram.com

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