10 May 2009


I watched the wonderful bollywood comedy Lage Raho Munna Bhai this past Saturday night. A deliciously funny film with heartfelt deeper meanings--and great production numbers!

The film's overall plot and deep emotional honesty reminded me very much of a Frank Capra comedy.

After finishing the film, past one in the morning, I emailed friends to tell them that they have to see this film. Jon rightly chides me about "overselling" things with too much enthusiasm. So I tried to play this one down with a simple offer of a loan of the DVD.

Somewhere in the short flurry of emails between Jon, Donna, and I, Jon remarked that the film title looked like an anagram of a movie title.

And that started it. There in the middle of the night. The Lage Raho Munna Bhai anagram contest!

Jon's very next email came in two minutes later. It read:

"I Am Rough Banana Hel".

I was juggling letters around. Another message from Jon:

"Aha! Large Numb Hanoi!"

Not bad! A bit more coherent than the first one. At least all the words were actual words, spelled correctly!

Still working on a worthy reply, when this came in:

"Hi On Alabama Hunger".

I liked that one a lot. And it further got my fury of letter-scrambling in gear, at now nearly 2am. Finally, I spluttered out:


I was pretty proud. Thought that was a pretty good one. It hung together as good anagrams can: it made a kind of sense, evoking a mini-story in the reader's mind. I expected some comment on it.

But when I opened Jon's next email, it contained this dreaded confession:

"Bean Hour: I Hang LA Ma"!

A headline ripped directly from the tabloids!

OK, OK, I had to reply. I was using my email's compose space to use and discard letters. Just as I was nearly ready to hit SEND, another came in:

"Aloha in Hamburg Lane".

Whoa. Prodigious. Impressive. Hard to beat.

I fired mine off:


After Jon's previous one, a veritable Mickey Spillane kind of title, this one did look, indeed, lame. But somehow I enjoyed its cockeyed riff on English grammar. Read straight out, the grammar doesn't work. But the phrase "lame ago" acts in a funny way, since it evokes the common "long ago. And once you've thought of "long ago," "lame ago" starts to sound right. So that brings a little more sense back into the whole. The grammar starts to hang together. What could this odd formulation be conveying? It could be describing the state of my own brain here in mid-anagram creation fury at past 2:00 in the morning!

And this is what I love about anagrams. One thing, anyway. They show a picture of our brain working. Specifically, our craving for order and sense in language. Faced with a string of words like "A BRAIN HUNG LAME AGO," we desperately want sense to come out of our encounter. We want it to mean something. And we are willing to suspend the usual rules of grammar and work by association to get there.

Look at the one I sent next, then, fired off to Jon and Donna at 2:11 am:


What do you make of that? Not brilliant. Pretty nonsensical. And yet not entirely without sense, again. Or rather, watch how your brain tries to make a coherent story out of the semi-nonsense string.

First, what is an "UN-HOME"? That's what we need to know before anything else can follow. So we decide that an "UN-HOME" has, maybe, something to do with homelessness. It is where a homeless person spends the night, maybe. An UN-HOME.

And once we've decided on that (or whatever other meaning you've fixed on) then the rest of the main clause rushes in to sense as well, with sudden magnetic force. It is as if any part of the nonsensical string gaining meaning quickly infects and converts the parts around it, too! So, "GRAB AN UN-HOME" evokes images of a homeless person finding, or maybe suddenly allocating or taking, a place to sleep for that night. Or it could.

But, as written, we are left with a dangling "A HAIL!" No problem. That just makes the first part into something that is yelled, maybe from one bum to another, "Hey, Mac, GRAB AN UN-HOME!" That is the hail that's being talked about here.

So, it would have been better stated as:


Still, there in the middle of the night, I definitely felt that most of Jon's anagrams had an edge of sense over mine. I mean, that last one was really stretching it, let's face it. But of course stretching the possibilities of language is one of the joys of this game of anagrams.

As I was thinking about this, and working on perhaps a more coherent, somewhat more grammatical figuration, Donna piped in. She had been following the whole contest, of course. My emails went to both Jon and Donna.

At 2:13, she said:

"I declare "Aloha in Hamburg Lane" the winner."

The winner?! Well. I liked Jon's anagram a lot. Yeah, it was really good. But "the winner"? OK, maybe it was better than any I had yet sent along. . .but I was not done! I couldn't stop anagramming.

Things were trailing off a bit, true. Lots of time between emails now. Probably Donna had had enough and wanted to go to bed.

I was getting a bit drowsy, true. But I couldn't stop. Gotta come up with a really good one.

At 2:25 am, I sent:


Less than two minutes later, Donna again:

"Jon's just been dethroned."

"Dethroned"?? Well, I felt kinda bad about that, to tell the truth. And kinda good, of course. Mostly, I wasn't ready for the game to be over. And, truthfully, I felt that Jon's anagrams were mostly more imaginative than mine.

Drowsy. Half-falling asleep and waking up to face a screen with a half-constructed anagram. Figuring out that we had 17 letters to work with in this particular anagram game.

Tired as I was, I was not coming up with anything brilliant. And Donna's judgment of winners and dethronements niggled me into thinking that I should definitely put honor where honor was due. I should look through the list of anagrams hurled back and forth so far, and see what my favorite was.

Doing so, I had to admit that "Aloha in Hamburg Lane" was really really good.

And I was just composing an email to say so when I chanced to count the letters in Jon's anagram.


Eighteen letters.

I had just started to turn this all into a formula, and had counted the number of letters we had to work with. I had come up with 17.

Better count again.

Yeah, the original title, "LAGE RAHO MUNNA BHAI" had only 17 letters. . .

. . .and "Aloha in Hamburg Lane" had 18!!

Looking quickly, I could see that this formerly brilliant and still quite imaginative anagram had two Ls. The original title had only one.

This woke me up a little bit.

I sent an email pointing out the error, and continued thinking about anagrams!

Working on anagrams!!

3:13 am, I said:

"Ah! Glamour inane? Bah!"

Donna replies, almost instantly:

"Stop while you're ahead, Jim. You can't beat your "on a ramble again, huh?"."

But now the thing had taken on a life of its own. It didn't matter if I could or couldn't beat my own former anagram. It didn't matter who was best. All that mattered was moving little letters around, coming up with new words, new sentences.


Another really good one from Jon. I had to admit, Jon was really good at this!

Just before four in the morning, my brother Roger in Germany came on the Instant Messenger, and I told him about the anagram storm we were in the middle of. And he took the bait. He started anagramming, and injected a new energy into the somewhat flagging phenomenon.

His first one was a good effort, but problematic:

"Hah! A large ambo in UN!"

I had to ask him what an ambo was. I did so, via the IM.

Rog: "One of the two raised stands in early Christian churches from which parts of the service were chanted or read, it stands to reason, of course."

Oh. Natch.

Roger's enthusiam brought new energy to our overnight flurry of letter-juggling and word-flinging. I had been flagging at this point, begging off, saying I was going to "go to bed." Can you imagine?

But Roger was quickly warming up to the challenge.

Shortly after his arrival, I flung out:


explaining, parenthetically, that this depicted a traveling connoisseur finally locating a delicacy he'd been searching tirelessly for.

Roger's next few entries proved imaginative, wacky, fun:

"Re-hang a bum in a halo."

"Hear a bug in loam? Nah!"

"Hug a Herm? Banana oil!"

That last one amazed and delighted me. I quickly pegged that one as the winner of the night, at least in my heart.

Somewhere in there, my next one came as a question of the efficacy of the entire anagram thing. Also, it sprang from the fact that often, especially with this letter set, one ended up throwing in words like "ah" and "uh" and "hah!" and "nah!" to complete the anagram. So, questioning the very form in which we were composing, I offered:

"Uh? 'Hanoi Barn Agleam'?"

And Jon showed us that he was still indeed awake and following, with:



The four o'clock hour was changing to five now. I definitely had one foot on an anagrammatic banana peel ("A PLANE BANE"?) and the other firmly in bed. I had to redeem myself from that last one. Not so great.

I worked on it and came up with a bit of grotesqerie that made me laugh outloud, there at past five in the morning:


Jon was gone. But Roger still had a couple of zingers to present:

"A hun home? Nab a grail!"



I went to bed.

But oh, my friends, a mere stint of repose cannot dampen the anagrammatic nerve!

Indeed, when I woke up, my mind was churning with it.

Here's what the churn of my mind produced:


Roger, too, came up with one, a variation on his last, some hours later:

"Ah! Human Anger Aboil!"

Finally, Roger carried the game on to his class of English learners in Berlin. I was fascinated what a group of English students would come up with.

Their entries end this article.




(Roger explains that these first three originally had an extra, illegal A included. You can see how another A would have made these more grammatical.)

and then:




And Roger ends his email with three words which I think would describe how all of us, Jon, Roger, Donna, and I, felt about this overnight flurry of anagrammatic diversion:

"We had fun."