10 Clever Wordplay Puzzles to Challenge Your Brain

... while you ponder the meaning of human symbols.

Posted Feb 28, 2016

Source: racorn/Shutterstock

A primary faculty that distinguishes human beings from other species is language. We use it to encode knowledge, to pass it on to subsequent generations, to think, to learn, to communicate, to entertain ourselves, and so on. The survival of human civilization depends on the preservation of languages and the vast repertories of knowledge they enfold. Without them, we would have to start anew, literally rebuilding knowledge with new words.

Each word possesses subtle meaning nuances and, as the ancient anagrammatists knew, rearranging the parts of a word to make a new word or phrase often produces new meanings that can be construed as having portentous implications, such as revealing the destiny of the bearer of a specific name. From the time of Moses onward, anagrams, for example, were thought to flesh out hidden meanings in names, as letters were perceived as sacred symbols. Although this may not be the case today in our more secular societies, we are still captivated by the same kind of “word magic.” One recent example is the anagram of George Bush as “He bugs Gore.” As this shows, it is the connection of the anagram to events in a person’s life that evokes a response within us. It is this connection that made ancient wordplay a part of mysticism, rather than mental recreation. Today, the Bush anagram would be considered witty, not prophetic. Nevertheless, it brings out the fact that we still find wordplay to be extrapolative, even if in a sarcastic way.

In this blog I would like to present a type of wordplay puzzle called a “reversal.” It too evokes a certain quasi-mystical sense with regard to the power of letters to literally “change things” as we “change them.” In this case the change is reversing the first and last letters, thus creating a change of meaning. (There is no evidence that this type of wordplay existed in previous times; they have been created solely for mental recreation or challenge, not to flesh out hidden meanings in symbols.)

Here’s how reversals work: You are given two meanings or definitions. The first defines the word, and the second defines the word we get by reversing its first and last letters.

For example:

  • (a) Enjoy oneself in a noisy and lively way
  • (b) Rigid bar placed on a pivot, used to lift a heavy load

To solve this type of puzzle, you have to think of two words simultaneously, in which the reversal of the first and last letters produces the meanings (a) and (b). The answer in this case is REVEL-LEVER. Revel corresponds to meaning (a). Changing the first and last letters produces lever, which corresponds to definition (b).

Here are 10 more puzzles for you to try solving. All words are only four letters long. If you find different answers, I would really appreciate knowing about them.


(a) Retreat of a defeated army
(b) Pleasure trip


(a) Pull something with considerable effort
(b) Someone who has completed his or her college degree


(a) Young horse
(b) Idle one’s time away


(a) Let go of something
(b) Incite someone to action


(a) Guide someone
(b) A bargain


(a) Look lasciviously
(b) Part of a movie


(a) Beloved
(b) Recite


(a) Obtain as result
(b) A fruit


(a) A game played on tables
(b) Closed circuit


(a) Glance
(b) Save

Puzzles of this kind seem to suggest at some intuitive level that human symbols do not arise arbitrarily, but rather that they are connected to a broader universe of meaning. The great philosopher Ernst Cassirer (1874-1975) characterized the human being as the “symbolic animal" in his 1944 book Essay on Man. Humans create a world of symbolic meanings, and these allow them to act meaningfully upon the world. Change the symbols and we change the meanings. I suggest that puzzles such as anagrams, acrostics, and even reversals play on this intuitive sense, deeply-rooted in our origins as conscious, sentient beings.

[Answers below]