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Backward Thinking

May 9, 2022

By Jim Rhodes

On February 22nd (2/22/22) this year, I wrote a post on “single digit palindromic dates,” in which the identical numbers read the same forward or backward.

Since then, I’ve been giving a good deal of thought to the phenomenon, and when my brain gets to wandering you can never tell where it might go.

What I learned from my research is that the tradition of writing palindromes dates back to ancient times. The word palindrome is derived from two Greek words, palin (which translates “back” or “again”) and dramein (a verb that means “to run”).

A few remnants of the artform survive from the ancient world, such as this Latin inscription discovered in the ruins of Herculaneum, which was buried in volcanic ash in AD79:

Sator arepo tenet opera rotas.

On my bookshelf, there is a whole row of well-thumbed volumes by one of my literary heroes, Willard Espy, with whose whimsical wordplay works I fell in love many years ago. His books, like Almanac of Words at Play, The Game of Words and O Thou Improper Thou Uncommon Noun, are masterpieces without peer in the English language (and a few other languages as well –some of them made up by Mr. Espy himself).

Espy writes that the first known recorded palindrome in the English language was published in 1617 by a poet named John Taylor, who was popularly known as the Water Poet.

Lewd I did live, & evil did I dwel.

A palindromic purist would no doubt insist that the use of an ampersand and the spelling of dwel should disqualify this statement as a true palindrome (although research reveals that the single ‘l” was not an uncommon spelling in Elizabethan English).

Apparently, palindromic verse didn’t immediately catch on, because two centuries later the Monthly Magazine and Literary Journal in London lamented in 1821 that no other new palindrome had been published in English since Taylor’s.

But at about the same time, shortly after Waterloo and Napoleon’s banishment, this palindromic epigram was produced by an unknown writer:

Able was I ere I saw Elba (Bonaparte’s lament)

By the late 1800s, palindromes had become something of a literary fad.

Here are a couple of the best-known creations.

Madam, I’m Adam (the first greeting in the Garden of Eden)

A man, a plan, a canal: Panama (referring to the builder of the waterway)

From the Wretched Excess Department …  If you like this sort of thing, you might check out the World Palindrome Championship, which is hosted annually by Will Shortz, editor of the New York Times crossword puzzle, or the annual SymmyS Awards, which are claimed by its sponsors to be the “Oscars of Palindromy.”

Here are a few SymmyS winners from past years:

Best short palindrome in 2021:

Tonsil is soft, fossil is not.

Best medium-length palindrome in 2021 (a conversation between two coffee shop customers):

Risk same café? Sure talk later.

Use face mask sir.

The best long palindrome in the 2018 SymmyS competition was this masterpiece of sheer nonsense:

Tides reverse, I reverse.
Rise, demitasse for piety, Locate spun words, Drowsy as re-papered evil.
I, to get a mad raw award, am a god!
Potter freely, assess a madness, drown in word wars.
Alas, reverse many revered is no cosmetic: I, to read a ‘drome (gem or dada erotic item) so consider every name’s reversal as raw.
Drown in words: send, amass, essay, leer, fret.
Top Dog – a mad raw award a mate got.
I lived ere paper says “Words Drown Upset Acolyte.”
I profess a time desire’s reveries reversed it!

I stand speechless in awe of this achievement.

But I still prefer palindromes that make sense and tell a story. For instance:

A slut nixes sex in Tulsa

Dennis and Edna sinned

And finally, if you are a word addict like me, you might also be interested to know that semordnilap is palindromes spelled backward. A semordnilap is defined as a word that can be read backward or forward. Examples include mood, maps, stressed, devil, desserts, diaper, lager and reknits.

You know? This might make a fun drinking game. Go around the table and see who can come up with the most and best semordnilaps? Loser buys the next round.