Howard Richler is the author of The Dead Sea
Scroll Palindromes,Take My Words, A Bawdy Language, Global Mother
Tongue, Can I Have a Word with You? and Strange
Bedfellows: The Private Lives of Words.
Oxford English Dictionary defines a palindrome as
“a word or a sequence of words that reads, letter for
letter, the same backwards as forwards.” Examples of
palindromes are ‘level,’ ‘deified,’
and ‘racecar’ and sentences such as: ‘Madame,
I`m Adam,’ and ‘Was it a rat I saw?’ The
word palindrome derives from the Greek palindromos,
which translates as “running back again.” It should
not be confused with hippodrome or a velodrome, which are
arenas where horses and bicycles are, hopefully, running only
Sotades, a Thracian iconoclast, is generally credited with
inventing palindromic sentences. This accounts for the alternate
name for apalindromes – ‘Sotadics.’ Sotades,
however, burst one balloon too many. He made the mistake of
satirizing the Egyptian king Ptolemy II in one of his palindromes.
The humourless king didn`t appreciate Sotades' wit and had
him stuffed inside a lead chest and thrown in the sea.
The majority of palindromes seem to be written in Latin and
English but their use is not unknown to other languages. The
palindromist Alastair Reid, in his book Passwords
written in 1959, quotes palindromes in French, Eh, ca
va, la vache?, and Spanish, Dabale arroz a la zorra
el abad, which my limited Spanish tells me has something
to do with rice, a prostitute and an abbot.
John Taylor is credited with devising the first English palindrome.
In his Nipping or Snipping of Abuses, written in
1614, he confesses palindromically, “Lewd did I live,
& evil I did dwel.” ‘Dwel’ is an old
spelling of ‘dwell’ and the use of an ampersand
is not totally kosher. Symmetry can be returned to the universe
if we rewrite it like this, “Evil I did dwell; lewd
did I live.” One of the best known English palindromes
is attributed to an enisled Anglophile Napoleon who is purported
to have intoned “Able was I ere I saw Elba.” Perhaps
inspired by the immortality Napoleon attained by his palindromic
lament, twentieth century politicians and leaders have had
a penchant for palindromic ejaculations. Curiously, all these
utterances are in English. Here is a sampling:
man, a plan, a canal-Panama. (Woodrow Wilson dedicates the
opening of the Panama Canal to its chief engineer, George
Washington Goethals -- 1914).
a tonga; nag not a raj. (Winston Churchill admonishes Mahatma
Gandhi -- 1942).
I attain a C? (George Bush soliloquizes in his quest for mediocrity
while attending Yale University -- 1967).
last, Carter retracts a lot. (During his Presidential debate
with Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford charges his opponent with vacillation
evil Shahs live on. (Attributed to Ayatollah Khoumeini --
Saddam a mad dastard. (The Emir of Kuwait, expresses his disdain
for Saddam Hussein -- 1990).
in uneven union! (In a speech to the Monarchist League of
Canada, Jacques Parizeau declares that he will no longer tolerate
a second class status for Quebec -- 1995).