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Beyond Vocabulary – Playing with Words through Ambigrams.

March 7, 2011

The first time I came in contact with ambigrams, it was in a book called Wordplay:  the Philosophy, Art, and Science of Ambigrams by John Langdon. Let me be frank: I do sometimes judge books by their covers, even if only to such an extent as to decide whether I want to read the back text to see what it is all about.  But in the instance of this book, I was just amazed to see the word Wordplay reading exactly the same when I turned the book upside down…

Now this immediately intrigued me because of two reasons.  Firstly, I’ve heard of palindromes, notably that little sentence A man, a plan, a canal: Panama  or a word like rotator which reads exactly the same in both directions.  Ambigrams is, therefore, merely a graphical way of the same concept.  Secondly, I lecture in geology and teaching crystallographic symmetry elements is part of my course.  A snow-flake, for instance, will repeat the exact same view six times per revolution (think of a six-sided star or an asterisk * – that basically mimics a snow-flake).

I obviously immediately bought the book and read and reread it so many times I probably know it by heart.  So amazing is this book, that Dan Brown named his main character in Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons after commissioning this author – Langdon – to create ambigrams for his two bestsellers.  I’m sure anyone who read these books, saw their covers, or watched the films will remember the beautiful word art!  He starts off his book simply stating “The first time I saw the yin and yang symbol was one of those moments that became permanent mental photographs.”  This is two-fold symmetry (i.e. repeating twice per revolution or every 180°) at its purest, and is completely on par with the unity in yoga: two apparently opposite aspects, yet so entwined and one that it cannot be separated.

In writing, one represents a word which conveys a specific (and obvious) meaning.  But when one converts this into an ambigram – or a glyph, calligraphy, mandala – it becomes almost meditative.  You ponder the meaning; you enhance it to almost lift it above mere vocabulary.  It is the mandala of Western writing where phonetics so often trumps meaning.  Through ambigrams (or any of the other word-art forms), one combines visual and auditory stimulation to something which induces a state nearer to pratyhara than wilfully closing the senses.

Ambigrams also represent a certain honesty.  Being able to rotate or mirror a word or phrase and seeing the exact same word or phrase: that suggests that whichever way you look at something or however you wish to interpret something, it should never change into being something else.  It should take pride in being the same, irrespective of perception, perspective or interpretation.

I opted for the eight limbs in ambigram form in the two-fold symmetry style (i.e. turning it upside-down).  One always strives to move up from Yama to Samadhi or to jump randomly between limbs where we feel comfortable, but one should always be willing to turn everything upside down and see exactly the same process unfolding.  One should be willing to return to your roots or your point of origin and still be content and satisfied with retaining and sustaining those more basic needs.

Every now and then, I consciously try to view life from the other side.  And I honestly hope to see the projection of the life I’m living – without deception, secrets, prejudice, hypocrisy or illusion.  For me, this is the road to truth and comprehension.


 Matthys Dippenaar (Yoga Revolution, Pretoria) | |

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