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Those of us who speak Malayalam well know what a palindrome is, because we are constantly told that our language is the only one whose name is a palindrome — a word, phrase or even number with characters in the same order forwards and backwards. We won’t discuss numbers in this column (other than to reveal that all numerical palindromes with an even number of digits are divisible by 11!), but words and phrases can be fun. Malayalam is a palindromic word, as are Anna, Hannah or Madam; kayak and racecar are palindromic means of transport; civic, level, radar, and refer are ordinary everyday words that are also palindromes. Adaven, Nevada is a palindromic name for a palindromic US town. “Madam, I’m Adam” (as the gentleman in the Garden of Eden introduced himself when Eve appeared) is a palindromic phrase; so are “a Toyota”, “don’t nod” and “nurses run”.
If you’re a cricket fan, you know the stats tell you about how many bowlers of both sexes get rotator cuff injuries; I could go on with their sagas, but it’s a wise evitative tenet to avoid boring my readers. What’s that sentence doing here? Well, it contains six palindromes!
Those are all fairly elementary palindromes, but they can get much more complicated. “Was it Eliot’s toilet I saw?” asks the English literature professor. “Go hang a salami; I’m a lasagna hog!” says a greedy American. “Desserts, I stressed,” he adds. “Murder for a jar of red rum,” laments a cop. “Red rum, sir, is murder.” These entire sentences read the same from left to right and right to left (ignoring punctuation, of course).
“Dennis and Edna sinned,” says a disapproving preacher. “Cain: A maniac,” he adds. “Do geese see God?” the sinner replies.” “Evil I did dwell, lewd did I live,” he confesses. (One protests: “Lived on decaf, faced no devil,” adding: “We panic in a pew.” Another confesses: “Reviled did I live, said I, as evil I did deliver.”) Scandalously, “T. Eliot nixes sex in toilet,” runs a headline. Another, wickedly: “Ah, Satan sees Natasha.” He did, eh? (Read that last query backwards now!)
The word “palindrome” was coined by the seventeenth-century English dramatist Ben Jonson, but the person usually credited with inventing palindromes was Sotades of Maroneia (in ancient Greece), who lived 2,300 years ago and wrote palindromic poetry satirising the Thracian government. The story goes that Ptolemy II was so infuriated by Sotades’ palindromic attacks that he had him captured, sealed in a chest, and thrown into the sea.
Indeed, politics lends itself readily to palindromes. “Drat Saddam, a mad dastard,” says an irritated American. (Or a variant: “Mad dastard, a sad rat—Saddam.”) “Roy, am I mayor?” asks a confused candidate. “No X in Nixon,” said Yanks cross with the disgraced American ex-President. “A man, a plan, a canal, Panama!” exclaimed an admirer of President Theodore Roosevelt. “Able was I ere I saw Elba,” reflected Napoleon regretfully. “No, Sir, a war is on.” Rise to vote, Sir!
Such palindromic sentences get quite creative. “Are we not drawn onward to new era?” or “Draw putrid dirt upward” are thoughtful examples, as is “Ogre, flog a golfer. Go!”. “Must sell at tallest sum,” screams an ad. “E.T. is opposite,” says a movie fan. “Lew, Otto has a hot towel,” exclaims a man at a sauna. Also among my favourites: “Niagara, O roar again.” “Campus motto: Bottoms up, Mac!” “Eva, can I stab bats in a cave?” “Marge lets Norah see Sharon’s telegram”. “Norma is as selfless as I am, Ron.” “A dog! A panic in a pagoda.” “A Santa deified at NASA.”
“Never odd or even” is the title of a book on wordplay. But the longer the sentence, the greater the challenge for the palindrome creator. Among the very best: “I saw desserts; I’d no lemons; alas, no melon. Distressed was I.” And: “Doc note: I dissent. A fast never prevents a fatness. I diet on cod.”
“Egad, an adage,” you might well say. I’d better stop or I might give you aibohphobia — another palindrome that means an irrational fear of palindromes! Evade me, Dave!
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