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Words within words

Marzo 2015
Anagrammi, frasi palindrome, indovinelli, parole nascoste... anche l’enigmistica può essere una buona scusa per un po’ di humour all’inglese.

di Julie Mason © British Council

File audio:

Speaker: Derek Allen (Standard British accent)

How did the animals open the zoo door? They used a monkey! What’s the longest word in English? Smiles – there’s a “mile” between the first and last letters! These jokes – a question followed by an unexpected answer – are known as “riddles.” But these ones are examples of a special sort of riddle, a riddle which is funny because a word is hidden within another word. Many English speakers are fascinated by this sort of wordplay, and it can be found in texts written in English a very long time ago, but riddles are not the only example of “words within words.” 


During Victorian times (1837–1901), the game of hiding words within a whole sentence became popular. What about this sentence? The king eats his lunch in a fine palace. Can you see that the countries “China” and “Nepal” are hidden in it? The Victorians even used hidden words to teach children history and geography at school. Today we still see hidden word games in books and magazines, but we also use hidden words in jokes. How do we know that Picasso was from Spain? You can see it in his painting!


An anagram is made by rearranging the letters in a word or phrase to make a different word or phrase. Take the following joke. What will happen if you try to make an alphabetical list of anagrams of the word “stare?” It will end in tears! The humour comes from the fact that “stare” is an anagram of “tears.” Are you ready for another one? What happens if you eat your “desserts” backwards? You get “stressed!”


Palindromes are words and phrases which can be read the same forwards and backwards. The pop group Abba, for example, is a palindrome, as is the sentence “Was it a car or a cat I saw?” We find them interesting, but they can also be funny: I kept receiving emails about reading maps backwards, but then I realized it was just spam!
So for a long time these “words within words” in English have been used to surprise and educate us... and they often make us laugh, too!

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