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11.3.10 Finding Anagrams from a Dictionary

An interesting programming challenge is to search for anagrams in a word list (such as /usr/share/dict/words on many GNU/Linux systems). One word is an anagram of another if both words contain the same letters (e.g., “babbling” and “blabbing”).

Column 2, Problem C, of Jon Bentley’s Programming Pearls, Second Edition, presents an elegant algorithm. The idea is to give words that are anagrams a common signature, sort all the words together by their signatures, and then print them. Dr. Bentley observes that taking the letters in each word and sorting them produces those common signatures.

The following program uses arrays of arrays to bring together words with the same signature and array sorting to print the words in sorted order:

# anagram.awk --- An implementation of the anagram-finding algorithm
#                 from Jon Bentley's "Programming Pearls," 2nd edition.
#                 Addison Wesley, 2000, ISBN 0-201-65788-0.
#                 Column 2, Problem C, section 2.8, pp 18-20.

/'s$/   { next }        # Skip possessives

The program starts with a header, and then a rule to skip possessives in the dictionary file. The next rule builds up the data structure. The first dimension of the array is indexed by the signature; the second dimension is the word itself:

    key = word2key($1)  # Build signature
    data[key][$1] = $1  # Store word with signature

The word2key() function creates the signature. It splits the word apart into individual letters, sorts the letters, and then joins them back together:

# word2key --- split word apart into letters, sort, and join back together

function word2key(word,     a, i, n, result)
    n = split(word, a, "")

    for (i = 1; i <= n; i++)
        result = result a[i]

    return result

Finally, the END rule traverses the array and prints out the anagram lists. It sends the output to the system sort command because otherwise the anagrams would appear in arbitrary order:

    sort = "sort"
    for (key in data) {
        # Sort words with same key
        nwords = asorti(data[key], words)
        if (nwords == 1)

        # And print. Minor glitch: trailing space at end of each line
        for (j = 1; j <= nwords; j++)
            printf("%s ", words[j]) | sort
        print "" | sort

Here is some partial output when the program is run:

$ gawk -f anagram.awk /usr/share/dict/words | grep '^b'
babbled blabbed
babbler blabber brabble
babblers blabbers brabbles
babbling blabbing
babbly blabby
babel bable
babels beslab
babery yabber

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