Jonson's Chain icon Jonson's Chain


graphic of words Palindrome and Semordnilap forming a circle

A palindrome is a word or group of words that read the same forward or backward. This may be true at the letter level (live, civic, kayak, racecar, Madam I'm Adam) or word level (Eat to live, not live to eat).1 The term "palindromic" is also applied to dates, numbers, musical compositions and even visual constructions.

The creation of palindromes dates back to ancient times. The Greek phrase karkinikê epigrafê ("crab inscription") refers to an inscription that can be read forwards or backwards and alludes to the movement of crabs.

The modern word palindrome is derived from Greek roots and means something like "running backwards." The first recorded use of the word is found in Ben Jonson's poem "An Execration Upon Vulcan" (published in 1640 in his collection Underwoods).

AIBOHPHOBIA = fear of palindromes (Teresa Monachino, "Word Fail Me," Private Eye, 12 May 2016, #1417, p. 34)

Ben Jonson (1572-1637)

After leaving his father's bricklaying business, Jonson spent some time in the army and then he began to work in London as an actor and playwright.

In 1597 he was imprisoned for his involvement in the satire The Isle of Dogs which was condemned for being seditious and slanderous. In 1598 he was tried for killing another actor in a duel, but escaped death by pleading benefit of clergy. He became a Roman Catholic during imprisonment, but abjured twelve years later.

In 1598 his comedy Every Man in His Humour was performed with William Shakespeare in the cast. His first extant tragedy Sejanus was performed in 1603. Other of his successful plays are Volpone (1605) and The Alchemist (1610).

In 1605 Jonson, George Chapman and John Marston were imprisoned because an anti-Scottish passage in their comedy Eastward Hoe offended the court (James I was king); they were released due to the intercession of powerful friends. Despite this he frequently produced masques for the court and is credited with inventing the antimasque.

A number of his poems are still anthologized, including "To My First Son," "Come, My Celia," "To Penshurst" and "To the Memory of My Beloved Master" which was prefixed to the first folio of Shakespeare's plays.

Despite being arrogant and quarrelsome, Jonson counted among his friends Shakespeare, Done, Beaumont, Fletcher, Bacon, Herrick and Suckling. Although not university-educated, Jonson was a classicist and he believed the function of poetry was to instruct by pleasing. He set and wrote to very high standards and was the most influential writer of his time, although Shakespeare's works are now more popular.2

"An Execration Upon Vulcan"

In this poem Jonson curses Vulcan, the god of fire, for burning his home and books in 1623. He says he doesn't understand why his library was burned: "And why to me this? thou lame Lord of Fire!/ What had I done that might call on thine ire?"3

The fire might have been justified if he had written "treason here, or heresy,/ Imposture, witchcraft, charms or blasphemy," but he didn't. Neither did he write a romance ("goodlier monster") such as Amadis de Gaul or Don Quixote. Nor did he waste time on "serious follies" such as anagrams and palindromes:

   Or spun out riddles, or weav'd fifty tomes
   Of Logographes, or curious Palindromes,
   Or pump'd for those hard trifles, Anagrams,
   Or Eteostics, or your finer flams
   Of eggs, and halberds, cradles, and a herse,
   A pair of scissars, and a comb in verse;
   Acrostichs, and telestichs on jump names

The poem continues with other examples of the types of bad writing that Vulcan would have been justified in destroying. Jonson also says that he had some really good pieces in his desk that Vulcan had no reason to burn -- at least not prior to publication. The poem is a mixture of humor and seriousness, satire and outrage.

Yes, Jonson does say that Vulcan would be justified in burning palindromes. He was critical of his contemporaries' fondness for playing with words. But Jonson was a punster and he occasionally wrote acrostics and the poem makes clear that he was familiar with the subtle differences among the various kinds of word play.4 It's impossible to say just how sincere he was in condemning palindromes.

Jonson's Neologisms

Ben Jonson is also credited with coining many other words, such as essayist (one who writes essays) and playwright, which he used to mean a mere maker of plays as opposed to a poet. Not all of his neologism are still used: obstupefact (a stupid person).

Gavin Alexander, lecturer in English at Cambridge University and fellow of Christ's College, claims that Ben Jonson introduced 558 words into the English language. He is behind John Milton (630) but ahead of John Donne (342) and Shakespeare (229).5

However, it's almost impossible to determine who actually "invented" a word. Historical dictionaries, such as the Oxford English Dictionary, cite the first recorded use of a word -- the date, work and author. But earlier uses may not have been recorded (in letters, diaries, books, pamphlets, newspapers, etc.) but only spoken. Or they may have been recorded but haven't been found yet. As more texts are converted to searchable electronic formats earlier recorded uses of words are being found. Still, a recent analysis by Hugh Craig found that Jonson's vocabulary was larger than Shakespeare's.6 See Will's Barricadoes for more on Shakespeare's vocabulary.


A semordnilap is a word that yields a different word when read backward: deliver = reviled, spoons = snoops, stressed = desserts. A semordnilap may also be a group of words: boy spots meat tub = but team stops yob.

The word semordnilap is the word palindromes spelled backward. The term was probably coined by recreational linguist Dmitri Borgmann.7

Jonson's Chain

After the first word is placed on the board, you add additional letters to form a single, horizontal chain of linked words -- the end of one word shares letters with the beginning of the next word. There are no vertical words.

Like links in a chain Link Words overlap, are interconnected. They are formed at the beginning OR the end of the chain using one or more of the letters already on the board and one or more new letters from your tray. You can add only one Link Word at a time to the front or end of the chain but not both at the same time.

game board

Assume the first word played on the board was ROUTE.

game board

You highlight letters already on the board and then add new letters to form a new word. You might highlight the last two letters TE and add the letter N to the end to form TEN.

game board

Or you might highlight the first letter R and add the two letters CA to the front to form CAR.

game board

There are Link Words that are also palindromes. They are formed just as Plain Link Words are and score double points. A palindrome is a word that is the same word spelled forward or backward: for example, tot, refer, noon, deified, racecar, kayak and rotator. You might highlight the last letter E and add the two letters VE to the end to form the palindrome EVE.

game board

There are Link Words that are also semordnilaps They are formed just as Plain Link Words are and score double points. A semordnilap is a word that is a different word when spelled backward: for example, yam/may, pots/stop, sleep/peels and dialer/relaid. You might highlight the first letter R and add the three letters STA to the front to form the semordnilap STAR.

When you use all seven tiles in your tray to form a Link Word, the letter-points for the word are doubled.

game boardgame board

Clasp Words are different from Link Words. They are formed by linking letters already on the board at the end of the chain with letters already on the board at the beginning of the chain. No new letters are put on the board. It's like bringing the two ends of the chain together and clasping, hooking them. A Clasp Word always reads from the end of the chain and wraps around to the front. You can check more than one Clasp Word during your turn. You might highlight the E as clasp start (green) and the R as clasp end (red) and check the Clasp Word EVER.

Jonson's Chain is the only Cotton Word Game that gives additional (double) points for playing a palindrome or semordnilap.

      Sylvie was arranging some letters on a board -- E-V-I-L.
   "Now, Bruno," she said, "what does that spell?"

      Bruno looked at it, in solemn silence, for a minute. "I knows
   what it doosrit spell!" he said at last.

      "That's no good," said Sylvie. "What does it spell?"

      Bruno took another look a the mysterious letters. "Why, it's
   'LIVE,' backwards!" he exclaimed. (I thought it was, indeed.)

      "How did you manage to see that?" said Sylvie.

      "I just twiddled my eyes," said Bruno, "and then I saw it
  directly. Now may I sing the King-fisher Song?"8

There are about 145 palindromes and 800 semordnilaps in the word lists. Just "twiddle" your eyes to find them.

See also

Quick Intro to Jonson's Chain

A discussion of the origin and development of Jonson's Chain


1To be palindromic a construction must be exactly the same forward or backward. If the words are only in reverse grammatical order the clause is called antimetabole: "Ask not what your country can do for you but you can do for your country."

2Some have proposed Jonson as the true author of Shakespeare's plays, though this view is no longer widely accepted.

3All references are to The Works of Ben Jonson, notes and biographical memoir by W. Gifford, introduction and appendices by Lietu. Col. F. Cunningham, 9 vols (London: Bickers and Son; Henry Sotheran and Co., 1875).

4Definitions for logogriph, telestich, eteostich and the other terms can be found easily on-line. See A Modest Defense of the Pun for more on Jonson's punning.

5John Crace, "John Milton -- our greatest word-maker," The Guardian, Sunday 27 January 2008 ( We can find no other source for Alexander's claims.

6Hugh Craig, "Shakespeare’s Vocabulary: Myth and Reality," Shakespeare Quarterly, 62, 1 (Spring 2011), 53-74.

7Semordnilaps are also known as volvograms, heteropalindromes, semi-palindromes, half-palindromes, reversgrams, mynoretehs, reversible anagrams, word reversals, anadromes and antigrams. Ananym is sometimes used as a synonym, but ananyms are usually reversed names such as Harpo/Oprah.

8Lewis Carroll, Sylvie and Bruno Concluded (London: Macmillan and Co., 1893), 11-12.