From Nova magazine, a publication of the University of Texas at El Paso’s News and Information Office, March, 1979.  You will notice that it was penned by Dale L. Walker, father of Dianne (CHS ’79) and all-around good egg.

Dr. Russell’s Diccionario Inverso:


Looking Forward,


by Dale L. Walker


oward the turn of the century in Leipzig, the old city of the old German state of Saxony where Martin Luther had declared his ideas of Reformation in 1519, a scholar named Otto Gradenwitz worked among ancient Latin documents.  Time, weather and worms had all but destroyed some of the precious manuscripts but it was Gradenwitz’s duty, as a paleographer, to decipher and interpret as much as he could.  Words in which the last several characters were obscured or missing posed no great obstacle:  a Latin dictionary provided the clues to what had probably been written.  But words in which the first several characters had been lost was an almost insuperable problem, and his scholarly mind, while groping for the words that would fill the immediate need, also ranged to the larger issue.  An ordinary Latin dictionary was of little use in the problem, but an inverse dictionary would be of inestimable value.  He compiled one and it was published in 1904.

Gradenwitz’s Laterculi vocum latinarum Voces Latinas et a fronte et a tergo ordinandas (“Indices of Latin Words, the words put in both frontward and backward order”—roughly) was the first inverse dictionary and so many new uses for such a work have been identified that similar compilations exist for such languages as German, French, Greek, old Polish, Russian, Rumanian, and Spanish.

Dr. William M. Russell, professor of modern languages at UT El Paso, is an authority on inverse (or reverse) lexicography and while the subject may appear arcane to the layman, a few minutes’ listening to Dr. Russell’s easy discourse, in particular about the Spanish language, his specialty, will erase all doubts as to the value of such works.

Dr. Russell is a native of Euless (Tarrant County), Texas.  He received his B.A. in 1948 at Birmingham Southern College, Alabama; his M.A. and Ph.D. at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.  Except for the period 1962-64, when he taught at the University of Arkansas, he has been a mainstay of UT El Paso’s Department of Modern Languages, teaching a stunning variety of courses, principally in Spanish language and literature:  Spanish Morphology, Old Spanish Readings, Lope de Vega, Renaissance and Baroque Poetry of Spain, Calderón de la Barca, Indigenous Literature of Latin America, Survey of Mexican Literature, Golden Age Drama, 19th Century Spanish Literature, Studies in Galdós, Studies in the Spanish Novel, and Studies in Spanish Theater, to name a few of them.

Dr. Ray Past, chairman of the UT El Paso Department of Linguistics, has not only known Dr. Russell for nearly 25 years, but took two of the professor’s courses.  “I have never seen his superior as a teacher in 30-odd years’ experience in several universities,” Dr. Past says.  “Nor have I seen anyone close to equaling the rapport he establishes with his students.  I believe it matter-of-fact to say they love him.”

And Dr. Joseph R. Smiley, twice president of UT El Paso and currently professor of French in the Modern Languages Department of the University, agrees wholeheartedly:  “Bill Russell is a superb teacher, deeply respected and admired by his students for the qualities which have also endeared him to his colleagues:  serious scholarship, dedication to learning and teaching, patience, unvarying cheerfulness, and admirable intellectual hospitality.”

Dr. Russell’s conscientious approach to his profession and his renown as a teacher (which won for him the prestigious AMOCO Teaching Excellence Award for 1977-78)—in particular, as a teacher of Spanish—have contributed greatly to his scholarly pursuits, one of which has occupied him for over 10 years.  This project is a usable inverse dictionary of Spanish, a book that can be of service to teachers of Spanish, poets writing in the language, and students of Spanish in general.

To clarify how such a dictionary works, Dr. Russell explains that in his diccionario inverso the words are printed in the usual way, so that they may be easily read, but alphabetized from the last letter toward the first, and ordinarily arranged so that the right margin is justified instead of the left.

Take, for example, this sentence:  “These words, once arranged, are printed in the usual way, but ordinarily right justified rather than left.”  If the words making up that sentence are alphabetized inversely, they would appear as follows:


















A group of common Spanish words, let’s say words ending in -al, would be arranged thusly:





















and so on.

At this point the whole idea is intriguing, but what use is it?

“Keep in mind,” Dr. Russell says, “that Spanish is a highly inflected language—in fact, inflection is all-important in Spanish.  This means changes in word endings and if you need to refer to word endings, as Spanish teachers do, and as students of Spanish must, what could be more helpful than a dictionary in which the words are arranged according their endings?”

For instance?  “Take Spanish verbs,” he says.  “These will be grouped together in an inverse dictionary since they all end in either -ar, -er, or -ir.  Any student or teacher of Spanish knows how difficult Spanish verb forms can be:  all have significant spelling changes in their various forms.”

An example?  “Take the rather large group of Spanish verbs classified as ‘orthographic changing.’  In this type of verb, changes are necessary to provide a uniformity in pronunciation.  With verbs whose infinitives end in -car and ­-gar, you change the c and g to -qu and -gu respectively before eToco (I touch), from the infinitive tocar (to touch), becomes toqué (I touched); pago (I pay), from the infinitive pogar (to pay) becomes pogué (I paid).”

Ramsey’s Spanish Grammar, Dr. Russell says, lists 12 additional infinitive types which require orthographic changes:  -guar, -ger, -quir, and -cer are examples.

With a diccionario inverso, he says, typical orthographic changing verbs can easily be located and listed for teaching the rules that govern them.

That’s not all, of course.  “Accenting, pluralizing, and gender are other problem areas in Spanish which can be aided by an inverse dictionary,” Dr. Russell continues.  “In accenting, the rule is that words having no accent and ending in a vowel, n, or s, will be stressed on the next to last syllable.  Unaccented words ending in a consonant other than n or s take the stress on the st syllable.  It is easy to find examples of this in a inverse dictionary.”

Pluralizing Spanish nouns is another area governed by great numbers of rules:  In the well-known Spanish Grammar by Marathon Montrose Ramsey, you will find the rule on pluralizing stating that nouns of more than one syllable which end in stressed -e, -o, or -u, and the monosyllables pie (foot) and té (tea) are pluralized by adding an sEl canapé (the couch) becomes los canapés; el tisú (the tissue) becomes los tisús and so on.  Nouns which end in a stressed -a, -i, or a stressed diphthong of which the last letter is -y, takes an -es to become plural.  El rubí (the ruby) becomes los rubíes; el rey (the king) becomes los reyes.

“Such rules as these deal with the word endings, once again,” Dr. Russell says, “and examples can easily be taken from an inverse dictionary, not so easily from an ordinary one.”

On the matter of gender:  “In a recent issue of Hispania” (a journal dedicated to the teaching of Spanish and Portuguese), says Dr. Russell, “there is an article by Prof. John Bergen of the University of New Mexico which presents a simplified approach to teaching the gender of Spanish nouns.  Prof. Bergen says that gender exemplifies the most difficult type of problem for a second language learner.  In his article he presents a table which fills almost a page for determining the gender of Spanish nouns.  Of the 10 rules he provides, all but two are based on the terminal letter or letters of the noun.”

For instance?  “Nouns ending in the following letter or letters:  -a, -d, -z, -ion, -umbre, -ie, and unstressed -is, are feminine.  Any terminal letter or letters other than those given for the feminine, especially -l, -o, -n, -e, -r, -s, are masculine.

“An inverse dictionary, since it places all words with like endings together, would provide many examples of this and would aid the teacher in preparing drills to reinforce these rules,” Dr. Russell says.

There is even the value of a diccionario inverso as a rhyming dictionary and Dr. Russell recalls a colleague who was composing a poem in Spanish and searching for a word to rhyme with “Verona,” the city in Shakespeare’s play about the Two Gentlemen.  Using a small list of common Spanish words in inverse order, the colleague found the word he needed—persona!

“There is a much closer correspondence between sound and spelling in Spanish than in English,” Dr. Russell explains, and those seeking to write poetry that rhymes can easily find their words in an inverse dictionary—some they might never have landed on, even if their command of Spanish is good.

And, there is a curiosity-sating factor to consider.  How many Spanish words can you recall ending with the letter jReloj (timepiece, clock, watch) springs to mind, but any others?  In fact, the 18th edition (Madrid, 1956) of the Royal Academy’s Diccionario de la lengua Española lists no less than 21 Spanish words ending in j (ranging from aj to almoraduj, each a type of plant), but it takes an inverse dictionary to list them for you.  Similarly, there are but eight words ending in f (including huf and puf, as in blow your house down), three ending in g (zigzag is one of them, meaning the same as in English), four ending in h (ah, bah, eh, oh), four ending in k (acampak, yak, cok, volapuk—look them up), and five in p (cap, salep, galop, top, chup).

(There are 16 words ending in b, 26 with c, three ending in ch, 47 with m, 57 in t, 36 ending in x, and something like 113 ending in u.  Name one of each.)

Early in his compilations, Dr. Russell encountered some problems in the computer sorting of the words to be placed in inverse order.  Because of our format, the IBM punchcard could carry no word of more than 18 characters, for example.  But this proved to be a minor problem since he had identified only about 40 words of more than 18 letters–the longest being electroencefalografía, desproporcionadamente, and bienintenciondamente, words which translate themselves.  These were simply sorted by hand.  Words containing ch—considered one letter in Spanish—and ñ words such as cañon and uña (also a separate letter and distinct from n) were eventually dealt with, but not without some labor.

Eventually, the computer sheets listed over 75,000 Spanish words in inverse order.

Since Dr. Russell’s original plan for a full-length inverse dictionary was preempted in 1973 with the publication by the University of Illinois of such a work, the UT El Paso professor is now zeroing in on a more functional book.  He explains:  “In my computer print-out there are about 75,000 items listed inversely.  This was based on the 18th edition of the Royal Academy dictionary, just as the Illinois book is.  There is now a new edition, but in reality there are only about 5,000 words that can be considered ‘useful’ in the sense of common usage.  Statistics have been published which show there are about 5,000 Spanish words which account for something over 94% of the words which constitute a typical Spanish text.”

The statistics Dr. Russell mentions appear in a very esoteric but immensely valuable work, Frequency Dictionary of Spanish Words, compiled by Alphonse Juilland and E. Chang-Rodríguez and published in 1964 by Mouton of the Hague, Netherlands.  Using a sample of 25,000 sentences totaling 460,813 words, Messrs. Juilland and Chang-Rodríguez show, by graph, chart and rarified language that the first ten most commonly occurring words (de, el, la, y, en, él, the pronoun que, ser, and the conjunction que) appear 168,246 times in the sample or 36.55% of the time.  The first 500 most frequently occurring words appear 305,200 times or 66.2% of the time.  And the first 2,500 most frequently occurring words appear 436,065 times and account for 94.6% of the sample of 460,813.

“I intend taking about the first 5,000 words—which should account for nearly 95% of the ‘useful’ Spanish vocabulary—and arrange them in inverse order.  The value of this book will be about the same as for the more ‘definitive’ one I originally had in mind.  Above all, it should be of value to the teacher of Spanish and the student of Spanish.  The rhyming dictionary benefit will be there too.  And, if anybody needs to know how many words there are in Spanish ending in j or u, I might include a chart showing the answer!”

Dr. Russell says his book will differ from the Illinois production in that it will contain not only the words in inverse order, but their parts of speech, and noun gender.

He is also currently at work on an article to be submitted to the editor of Names, journal of the American Name Society, suggesting that publications containing name lists should provide as a supplement or appendix an inverse listing of the same names.  The rationale for this argument is that the suffixes of many place names can, for example, provide evidence of the language spoken by the early inhabitants of a geographical region.

Dr. Russell cites, to illustrate the importance the of place name suffixes, a work by the great Spanish scholar, Ramón Menéndez Pidal, Toponimia prerrománica Hispaña.  “Menéndez Pidal,” Dr. Russell says, “devotes about a third of his 300-page book to dealing with suffixes as indicators of the linguistic origin of Spanish place names.”

And so it goes.  The value of and potential for inverse lexicography appears to be fathomless.

Otto Gradenwitz, poring over his Latin manuscripts, worked with endings, but it was only the beginning.  ۞