Building Transgressive Anagrams

Update: See Friday’s post (Dustings of Woofle #6) for some spreadsheet tools that make this process much simpler.)

After linking to an anagram creation tool last week, I received a few emails asking how to create Transgressive Anagrams.

That original post dealt with using the “transgressive” approach with pre-made branching anagrams. This post is about how to build them from the ground up.

Here is the process I use. There’s nothing particularly clever about it. It’s a brute-force method, but it’s a streamlined brute-force method because I’ve done it so much.

Remember that the difference between a traditional progressive/branching anagram and a transgressive anagram is that the first prioritizes hits, the latter prioritizes speed. I’ll explain at the end why you might want speed over hits. Even if you don’t care how to create such an anagram, you may be interested in some of the ideas regarding how this can be used.

Let’s create a transgressive anagram for the word list in that previous post: Jerx, Andy, blog, magic, genius, beautiful, writing, well-endowed

1. The first thing I do is create a spreadsheet with the letters of the alphabet along the top and the words for the anagram along the side.

2. The next thing I do is go column by column (letter by letter) and put an X in the box if the word on the left contains that letter. This may seem time-consuming, but this part actually goes pretty quickly.

3. Then I delete all the columns with no Xs in them.

So I end up with something like this:

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4. Now, with a TA, we want to split the pool in half each time (if possible). So the first letter in our anagram is going to be one that appears in 4 of the 8 words. Here we have four choices EGIN. I’m going to go with N. Ideally I don’t want to ever use a letter that seems “obviously” associated with one particular word. If I chose G, for instance, then me coming up with “Genius” might seem like more of an “obvious” connection between letter and word.

5. Next step, I create two new tabs in my spread. These tabs are called N+ and N-. N+ is for the words that have an N. N- for the words that don’t.

6. Here are the N+ and N- spreadsheets. I remove any empty columns, as they won’t help us later on.





7. Now we’ll split each of these spreadsheets into two equal spreadsheets of two words each. So for N+ we’ll split in half by the letter D. That will give us an N+D+ sheet. And an N+D- sheet. I’m not going to illustrate all these paths, but we’ll continue along the N+D+ path.

8. So now we have two words in the N+D+ tab. And we need to split those by a letter. In this case we’ll choose E. Having a very common final letter is good. It doesn’t seem like you could learn that much by learning if a word had an E in it. So then I annotate that final letter guess at the bottom of a two item spreadsheet.

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So, in this particular path, if they said yes to N, we’d ask about D. If they say yes to D, we’d ask about E.

9. Let’s say the other potential paths in this anagram are:

N=yes -> D=No -> S
N=No-> A=Yes -> E
N=No -> A=No -> O

That would lead us to an anagram that looks like this, where for each yes answer you move to the green box to the right, and each no answer you move to the red box to the right.

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That’s the process. (Although that’s not the actual anagram I would use for those words, but we’ll get to that in a moment.)

What if you get to a point and your word list doesn’t split evenly by a letter? Well, you can take a step backwards and change the previous letter you split on, which might work out better later on. Or you might not have to split exactly evenly. You only would expect a perfect split all the way down when you’re dealing with 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, etc., possibilities. So you can get away with being one off on some of the splits.

Andy, when I asked how you went about creating these types of anagrams, I assumed you had some clever process, not just copying and pasting spreadsheets and counting letters.

Yeah, sorry, I don’t know what to tell you. If you think an 8-tab spreadsheet for an 8-option anagram is complex, you should see the 32 spreadsheets I needed to create the transgressive anagram for Disney movies in the JAMM #4. It was a real “Beautiful Mind” type situation to focus on putting that together. Except my “beautiful mind” is more designed for coming up with dirty Christmas carol parodies than it is anything requiring detailed/analytic thinking. So it was a real pain for me. (Although now I’ve done it a bunch more for friends who find it easier to pay me to create an anagram than sit down and do it on their own. And I’ve grown to enjoy the process.)

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Now, let’s talk about why you would want to go with a transgressive anagram. There are two primary reasons.

The first is that it guarantees you the least possible guesses (on average). This is particularly noticeable with an anagram covering many options. And if your presentation is something other than, “I can read your mind perfectly” (in which hits would be the most important thing), then you might value a shorter anagram.

The other reason you’d want to use a TA is because you know from the start how many guesses it will take. It’s not “somewhere between 2 and 5.” It’s always three (in this case).

So that allows you to do things like this…Let’s say you have a TA for eight objects. You ask three people to decide between them on which object they want to mentally project to you. “I’m going to try and hone in on one of your minds. We’ll start off easy with just the spelling of the word. Everyone pictures items differently, but we all spell the same, for the most part.”

You have them cycle through the spelling of the word in their mind. Then, one by one, you name a letter for each person. “I’m getting an N from you, yes?” That person replies yes or no, then you’re onto the next person.

After these three guesses you know the word/object.

If you get three YES responses: “Oh, you guys are doing great. This never works this well. I think you’re actually amplifying each other’s thoughts. Keep spelling the word.” Then you continue naming letters with ZERO misses. That’s very strong.

If you get two YES responses: You tell the one NO to sit down and say you’ll work with the other two. “Can you each think of the shape of this object. Forget the spelling.” You struggle with one of the remaining people. “Yours thoughts are coming through a little hazy, I think I’m going to try it with her instead.” You turn to the remaining person. “With you I seem to be getting something clearer, keep sending me the thought…,” and you just finish up with that person.

If you get one YES response: You tell the other two to sit down and now you can do some very direct mind-reading, although you apparently only know one random letter they’re thinking of. This is also very strong.

If you get all NO responses: This might be the best situation of them all. “You guys are terrible at this. Let’s try something completely different.” And now you can do whatever you want to reveal the information without seemingly knowing anything.


Now, I said above that this sample anagram is not the one I would use for that list of words. The one I would actually use is kind of a special case and I didn’t want to confuse you with it. It’s a type of transgressive anagram that you can find in some groups of words (or, more likely, you can create a specific group of words with this trait). I call it a “Perfect” Transgressive Anagram, because you can create an anagram with the same letters guessed at each stage. That would look something like this.

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That allows you to do something like this….You have an alphabet deck with the N, I, and E removed. Your spectator shuffles the deck and stops whenever they please. You pick up the deck (adding the N,I, and E cards to the bottom from cop position) and deal the packet into three piles. The top cards of each being the N, I, E. (You could also use a Spectator Cuts the Aces handling, or a Shuffling Lesson type handling to get to this position and would barely have to touch the deck at all.)

You tell them to look at the top card of each packet. If the letter is in their word, the should keep the card. If not, just leave it where it is. By noting which cards they take, you know which word they’re thinking of. And if the cards are marked, you don’t even have to watch during this part. Just note what cards remain on top when you turn back.

Then, of course, you can reveal the word in whatever manner you want. Yes, you would have to justify that process in some way, but that could easily be done by putting the cards in the context of a game, a test of some sort, or a divination tool. The combination of methods (trangressive anagram, marked cards, card forcing procedure) is essentially impenetrable. From their perspective they shuffle and cut to three random cards and note which of those letters (which you don’t know) appear in a freely chosen word they never speak or write anywhere—it just exists in their mind. And without looking at the cards or asking any questions you know what they’re thinking.

The easiest way to create a “perfect” transgressive anagram is to do it backwards. Start with the three (or four or five) letters you want to use and then come up with things in a category that have/don’t have those letters. If you have a broad category like “celebrities” or “movies” or something, it’s relatively easy to do. The easiest category would be “full names.” You could construct a 1024-option, 10-level, perfect transgressive anagram. It would be time consuming, but not hard.

Then you could make a fake old yearbook using the names you created and have them think of any one of 1000+ students. Use the letter cards as a divination tool in a ritual to reach out to one of the long-dead students. Without ever seeing the cards (you could be out of the room during that part) or asking any questions, you take the spectator’s hand and you’re guided to one particular person in the book; the one they’re thinking of. That would be dope.


If this is all very convoluted, don’t fret. In the upcoming book I’ll be giving further details on my favorite style of anagram which is not only super easy to create, but it’s also essentially invisible when used in a magic trick.