Word Matters Podcast

The Backward Index

Word Matters, Episode 32

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Strange but true: in the basement of our Springfield office, we have a file of 315,000 words typed in reverse. Why would anyone want (or do) such a thing? We'll explain.

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Emily Brewster : Coming up on Word Matters: an unusual project that has the whole language backwards. I'm Emily Brewster and Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media. On each episode, Merriam-Webster editors explore some aspect of the English language, from the dictionary's vantage point.

In the basement of Merriam-Webster's Springfield, Massachusetts headquarters are 129 cardboard file boxes containing in total about 315,000 slips of paper, each slip having on it a word typed neatly and typed backwards. Next up, Peter Sokolowski and I talk about Merriam-Webster's most mysterious mid-20th century project: The Backwards Index. In the Merriam-Webster office in Springfield, Massachusetts, there is in the basement, a section of wall that has all of these narrow small cardboard boxes. They're like shoe boxes, except that they're big enough for three by five slips of paper. And there are many, many boxes, all stacked and in each box is many, many, many slips of paper. And each slip has a word written backwards in its upper left hand corner, and then the same word written forwards immediately underneath it. Peter, why?

Peter Sokolowski: The Backward Index. And when you say written, these are typed. So this is a very carefully presented archive. Little slips of paper are kind of at the root of so much in dictionary research and dictionary publishing. And we're familiar with little slips of paper as what we call citations, which is a word in use with bibliography. So we know who used it and where, and when.

Emily Brewster : We also have traditionally used these same little slips of paper for interoffice communication. Email has basically displaced that, but certainly when you started working at Merriam-Webster and when I started working at Merriam-Webster, it was very common to communicate with people in the building by writing notes on little slips of paper.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah. We all have three letter initials and you would put an upper right-hand corner of the initials of the person you're writing to. And you write your little note and you usually stamp it. We all had stamps. Very old-fashioned, but there are slips of paper for the authors quotes in the dictionary. There are slips of paper for the drafted entries, the new wording, there are slips of paper for everything. But this one is unusual. It's called The Backward Index, or The Reverse Index. And it is maybe unique in the world. It clearly reveals that at some point the editors or the chief editor wanted to be able to alphabetize the dictionary by headwords backwards. Which in a digital age seems kind of like an elementary exercise. It seems like something that was not that interesting. However, there were things that he could do that were impossible otherwise, for example, how many sciences or objects of study end in -ology? How many compounds of pony are there? Because there's the Shetland pony and the Welsh pony and the Highland pony. And the fact is they would all appear at different parts of the alphabet. Only when you alphabetize it backwards, can you connect them in a very significant way, for example, from a defining perspective, make sure that they're defined in a similar way or in ways that relate to each other.

Emily Brewster : They can make group defining possible. You can extract all these terms and examine all these terms. These kinds of extractions, of identifying a group of words that are related morphologically, is something that now we do very easily. I don't do it as a definer, but there are people on staff I can say, can you just send me a list of all these words that have this particular element or something? And then that person runs some magic. That person does some magic that I don't understand that then results in a list that they can give to me. It's very easy to do if you know the magic for these people, but at this time that magic didn't exist.

Peter Sokolowski: Not at all, not at all. And for example, compounds, as we've mentioned, I mean, things like cluck, like buck, like ruck, like suck, like I found that sequence there. It's nice to know that we define them for example, as closed compounds, not hyphenated. And there are these funny sequences that if you look them up backwards, you get words that maybe never heard before, seepy, steepy, weepy, sweepy, dorty, forty, shorty, snorty, porty. So these are words that I don't know or use but they were easy to find if you look them up backwards. It also helps very obviously with the drafting of a rhyming dictionary, which is exactly what some of this was used for, for sure. But the fact is, we're not sure about a lot of this index. We do know a few facts. One is that they were typed up. They were typed up by the typist and I interviewed several retired Merriam-Webster employees, at least a couple of them in their 90s. And they all recall this work. They all recall the file and they say, well, that's what the typists did when there was no manuscript for them to type. When in the process of making the Unabridged Dictionary, for example, there was an enormous amount of copy at the beginning of the project. But then as the typesetting went on, what happened was through revision and later stages of editing, there was less and less and less of the actual manuscript to type. And that left some of the typing pool available to do other projects. And their assignment was to, when they had the time, to type the headwords in the dictionary backwards. And we know this started sometime during the run of Webster's Second, which is to say before 1961. And we know from the headwords that it went at least through the middle 1970s. But all of that does correspond to the time during which Phillip Babcock Gove was an editor and then editor-in-chief at Merriam-Webster. And he had a kind of mania for organization and for a kind of regularity in dictionary making. In fact, he kind of revolutionized the way that dictionaries are written at Merriam-Webster in the sense that he wanted a kind of uniform tone, a uniform style. It's just a guess, but I think this expresses another piece of his mission, his desire to make a uniform reference. He really wanted kind of digital way. He was thinking in a proto-digital way is what I'm saying. He wanted something that could organize this dictionary perfectly frontwards and backwards.

Emily Brewster : We'll have more on the strange history of Merriam-Webster's backwards index right after the break. You're listening to Word Matters from Merriam-Webster and New England Public Media.

Ammon Shea: I'm Ammon Shea. Do you have a question about the origin, history, or meaning of a word? Email us at wordmatters@m-w.com.

Peter Sokolowski: I'm Peter Sokolowski. Join me every day for The Word Of The Day, a brief look at the history and definition of one word available at merriam-webster.com or wherever you get your podcasts. And for more podcasts from New England Public Media visit the NEPM podcast hub at nepm.org.

Emily Brewster : I love that this backwards index also makes it possible to address that riddle that used to go around a lot. There are three words that end in G-R-Y. Angry, hungry. What is the third?

Peter Sokolowski: Do you know what the third one is?

Emily Brewster : I think there actually is no common word that is the third.

Peter Sokolowski: That's right. There's a couple that qualify. There's the term, anhungry, which was used by Shakespeare. I think it just means "hungry." And there's the term aggry, which does present us with a G-R-Y ending, but that's entered as a compound. We don't enter it by itself.

Emily Brewster : I just realized there's a new one. There is now a third G-R-Y word. And that is the word hangry.

Peter Sokolowski: Hangry, yes, which is made up of parts that resemble these G-R-Y words. But you're right. This backward index was actually useful in this way. And a couple of retired colleagues said that they used it this way when people would write in saying, I think there's a word for that. With a reverse logic saying, is there a word for this kind of pony or this kind of disease or this kind of scientific endeavor, field of study? So you could go to the -ologies, you could go to the ponies and you could see in the headwords, written backwards, if there was something that they didn't think of when just trying to come up with an answer thinking forwards. And again, because you're not missing anything going backwards, you get the complete list. It's kind of elegant as a solution.

Emily Brewster : It is. And it just to how before the age of the internet, the dictionary had to answer many more questions than it does now.

Peter Sokolowski: That's an interesting point. We've got so many letters and that may be really the biggest use of this, the famous reverse index. When the editorial floor was renovated right about the time that I began at the company, the reverse index was in a card catalog. And then they were put in these boxes and stored in the basement where they just gathered dust for a long time. And it's just a few years ago where one of our maintenance staff was able to sort of get a shelf mounted against a wall in the basement. So they're all in one place. And I did a rough count of these, counting the contents of a couple of inches of one box and then extrapolating. And this got to be 315,000 cards, which corresponds very closely to the number of head words in our unabridged dictionary.

Emily Brewster : That's amazing. No wonder those typists remember.

Peter Sokolowski: It's like a white elephant. It really took too much effort for anyone other than a dictionary company with a full staff to create. And sure enough, we created it. I'm not sure that there's anything like it anywhere in the world and there probably never will be but I'm glad it's there. It's one of those idiosyncratic things that connect us to our history and also to the curiosity and the insistence upon order, that is such a big part of editing dictionaries.

Emily Brewster : Just proves that we at Merriam-Webster know words forwards and backwards. Let us know what you think about Word Matters. Review us on Apple Podcasts or send us an email at wordmatters@m-w.com. You can also visit us at nepm.org and for the word of the day and all your general dictionary needs visit merriam-webster.com. Our theme music is by Tobias Voigt, artwork by Annie Jacobson. Word Matters is produced by John Voci and Adam Maid. For Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, and Peter Sokolowski, I'm Emily Brewster. Word Matters is a production of Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

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