- Posted by Stephen Whiteley
- On 06/02/2012
- coffe break linguistics, palindromes
Today, some brain candy – palindromes!
As any fule kno, a palindrome is a word or phrase which mirrors itself; in other words, which can be read backwards and forwards, as in the case of the famous opening gambit of the First Man to his ex-rib: Madam, I’m Adam.
Wikipedia is authoritative and fascinating on the etymology of the term: “The word “palindrome” was coined from Greek roots palin (πάλιν; “again”) and dromos (δρóμος; “way, direction”) by English writer Ben Jonson in the 17th century. The actual Greek phrase to describe the phenomenon is karkinikê epigrafê (καρκινικὴ επιγραφή; crab inscription), or simply karkinoi (καρκίνοι; crabs), alluding to the backward movement of crabs, like an inscription that can be read backwards.”
Palindromes abound. There was a time when any British school child was familiar with Napoleon’s (surely apocryphal, given that it is in English) pronouncement upon landing on Elba: ‘Able was I ere I saw Elba’ (‘ere’ is an antique word for ‘before’).
But there is more to palindromy than mere cleverness. The historian John Julius Norwich is an aficionado and collector, and he has collated various poems written entirely in palindromic sentences (regrettably, I do not have them to hand). The key to an enduring palindrome is thus that it goes beyond verbal trickery: it must be more than just gibberish, and it must sound nice.
Here are some favourites of mine:
Satan! Oscillate my metallic sonatas!
Never odd or even.
Are we not drawn onward, we few, drawn onward to new era?
Sex at noon taxes.
Now, sir, a war is never even – sir, a war is won!
Retteb, si flahd noces eht tub, but the second half is better.
…and finally, Demetri Martin’s epic palindrome poem. Read it and weep:
“Dammit I’m mad.
Evil is a deed as I live.
God, am I reviled? I rise, my bed on a sun, I melt.
To be not one man emanating is sad. I piss.
Alas, it is so late. Who stops to help?
Man, it is hot. I’m in it. I tell.
I am not a devil. I level “Mad Dog”.
Ah, say burning is, as a deified gulp,
In my halo of a mired rum tin.
I erase many men. Oh, to be man, a sin.
Is evil in a clam? In a trap?
No. It is open. On it I was stuck.
Rats peed on hope. Elsewhere dips a web.
Be still if I fill its ebb.
Ew, a spider… eh?
We sleep. Oh no!
Deep, stark cuts saw it in one position.
Part animal, can I live? Sin is a name.
Both, one… my names are in it.
Murder? I’m a fool.
A hymn I plug, deified as a sign in ruby ash.
A Goddam level I lived at.
On mail let it in. I’m it.
Oh, sit in ample hot spots. Oh wet!
A loss it is alas (sip). I’d assign it a name.N
ame not one bottle minus an ode by me:
“Sir, I deliver. I’m a dog”
Evil is a deed as I live.
Dammit I’m mad.