Many written languages developed from pictorial representations of objects, small artistic icons that gradually became more refined and simplified into letters. Once the intricate graphics were taken away, people started putting the artistry back into writing by finding new ways to combine the letters. One of the more popular ways of doing this was by changing the shapes of the letters (with the result that we now have thousands of computer fonts to choose from) to match the mood of the text, or to highlight a word. Monasteries became famous for their “illuminated” texts that incorporated small pictures and fantastically ornamented capital letters, often using gold leaf and precious colored paints. However, even without changing the shape of letters, they could be put in pleasing and entertaining configurations, not just by spelling words, but by creating sets of words that formed pictures, or read the same forwards and backwards. A palindrome is a set of one or more words that reads like that; two famous examples of palindromes are NEVER ODD OR EVEN and ABLE WAS I ERE I SAW ELBA. Some English words like desserts (stressed) and reviled (deliver) are natural palindromes.
An ambigram isn’t a palindrome, exactly, though many of them read the same forward and backward. In this case, the mirror-image effect is done entirely through the style of the letters. With a rotational ambigram, the word image is designed to be rotated or inverted, and the viewer can see the same word – or sometimes a different word entirely – in the image whether upside down or right side up. Some ambigrams use the shapes of the spaces between the letters of a word to form a new word, and others rely on the way letters are drawn to create a change in perception of exactly what word the letters form. Many businesses these days use ambigrams in their logos and promotional material, because they’re so visually compelling.
For some examples of ambigrams and other word art, look up the work of artists John Langdon or Scott Kim. Try your hand at graphic artistry yourself, and you’ll find you’re looking at vocabulary words in a whole new way.