Two-Way Wordplay for a True Brain Workout

Fifteen puzzles on words that can be read both ways.

Posted Jun 02, 2020

One of my favorite books as a younger person, which I read over and over until the pages started becoming brittle, was Dmitri Borgmann’s 1965 book, Language on Vacation. I was amazed, and still am, at the infinitude of games and puzzles that can be derived from playing with words.

Why wordplay? I would like to suggest, using a term introduced by Dutch historian Johan Huizinga in 1938, in his book, Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Human Culture, that homo sapiens has a twin, homo ludens. The former seeks knowledge directly, the latter in a roundabout playful way. Word games are homo ludens’ playful experiments with language forms and their meanings, showing in their own way how language and knowledge are intertwined. 

One type of word game that has always intrigued me involves words that, by happenstance, can be read both ways, left-to-right and right-to-left, with different meanings according to the direction. A simple example is TOP. When read in the usual fashion, from left-to-right, it refers to the highest point or part of something; when read backwards, from right-to-left, we get POT, which refers, instead, to a type of container. This type of game can be called, simply, “two-way wordplay.” 

My sense is that such wordplay will give you a true brain workout, with hidden cognitive benefits, as research into puzzles now shows and as discussed in previous blogs. Anecdotal evidence that wordplay is indeed effective also comes from the fact that, after Language on Vacation came out, Borgmann was hired by an industrial design firm to invent brand names for their clients, clearly understanding that we are indeed influenced by words and their hidden properties.

There are 15 two-way puzzles below, laid out as follows.

L-R (when read left-to-right): a piece or segment; R-L (when read right-to-left): a snare or leghold

From these clues, it can be deduced that the answer is PART—TRAP. PART refers to “a piece or segment” and TRAP to “a snare or leghold.”

Puzzles

1. L-R: the pointed end of something; R-L: a hole in the ground

2. L-R: yet, nevertheless; R-L: wide, open, water-holding container

3. L-R: a word indicating negation; R-L: a very large amount

4. L-R: a verb form of to be; R-L: epoch

5. L-R: container in which food is cooked; R-L: brief sleep

6. L-R: celestial body; R-L: rodents

7. L-R: exist; R-L: bad, malevolent

8. L-R: sneak a look; R-L: retain, hold on to

9. L-R: strip of leather; R-L: pieces or segments

10. L-R: trolley cars; R-L: bright, clever

11. L-R: conceited; R-L: in medical language, gingiva

12. L-R: clip, cut off; R-L: thin pieces of metal with a sharp point

13. L-R: edible fruits in a hard shell; R-L: daze, stupefy

14. L-R: small sums of money given to servers; R-L: eject saliva

15. L-R: to lose self-control; R-L: cooking containers

Answers

1. TIP—PIT

2. BUT—TUB

3. NOT—TON

4. ARE—ERA

5. PAN—NAP

6. STAR—RATS

7. LIVE—EVIL

8. PEEK—KEEP

9. STRAP—PARTS

10. TRAMS—SMART

11. SMUG—GUMS

12. SNIP—PINS

13. NUTS—STUN

14. TIPS—SPIT

15. SNAP—PANS