The Ambigrams of Douglas Hofstadter

Ambigrams are a kind of word play using the form of one word to construct another. Originally called “inversions”, credit for the idea is generally given to Scott Kim. The creativity and depth of Kim’s work is unsurpassed. Isaac Asimov once called him “The Escher of the alphabet”. An impressive collection of Scott Kim’s ambigrams can be found here but I’ve provided the three below if you’re feeling lazy.




Unfortunately for those of us who do not speak Italian, one of the best works on ambigrams is a book written by Douglas Hofstadter called “Ambigrammi” which has only ever been printed in Italian. Many readers might remember the name Hofstadter from the Pulitzer prize winning book “Godel, Escher and Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid” or from the “Metamagical Themas” column in Scientific American which Hofstadter wrote for a number of years. I managed to get a copy of Ambigrammi1 and wanted to generate some interest in the work by showcasing a few of the English ones2.





The underlying power of each ambigram lies in the flexibility or “fluidity”, of our letter concepts. Contextual pressure changes how we percieve the “roles” or relevant constituents of letter forms. For this reason, ambigrams have become a fascinating area of study for cognitive scientists who are interested in the relationships between perception and cognition. One of the most interesting explorations of these ideas was undertaken by Gary McGraw, John Rehling and Douglas Hofstadter in their program Letter Spirit 3. This program explores how inter-letter analogies affect perception by biasing the stochastic mechanisms that people use when assessing how well the parts of a letter combine in to “roles”4 and how well those roles can then be put together to form wholes. If that was too much of a mouthful, you may want check out Hofstadter’s book, Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies or the synopsis written by John Rehling.



And of course for those familiar with Dr. Hofstadter’s work, “Egbert B. Gebstadter” (gruesome quality I know).

I hope you enjoyed this collection and if you have any suggestions or additions you’d like to make, please feel free to contact me.


1. The book is out of print but available used on Amazon if you’re willing to shell out a couple hundred bucks. I have a copy of the book though if anyone would like to buy it off me for a bit less than Amazon. Maybe there’s someone out there who speaks Italian and could try translating it in to English.

2. I apologize in advance that some of the pictures suck, my camera is awful.

3. I am currently trying to get the Letter Spirit program working again but don’t have much experience with Scheme. If anyone out there is interested in helping me ressurect this, I’d be very grateful for the help.

4. A role is a collection of parts or “quanta” whose collective activations most closely correlate to something that might be called “left bowl” or “ascender”.

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