'See referees': Here are words and phrases that read the same backwards and forwards

Shashi Tharoor's World of Words is a weekly column that dissects English language

By Shashi Tharoor

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Shashi Tharoor
Shashi Tharoor

Published: Thu 23 Feb 2023, 7:37 PM

Last updated: Thu 23 Feb 2023, 7:38 PM

Last week we overdosed, I fear, on palindromes, those delightful words, phrases and sentences that can be read the same backwards and forwards, like “Never odd or even”. An exhausted visitor to the desert might gasp that it’s “Too hot to hoot.” I still had some in the tank when I ran out of space last week, so will inflict more of my favourites on you — with a bonus.

Two nuggets: While we mentioned the likes of Hannah and Anna, real people have palindromic names too, like the former Cambodian Prime Minister Lon Nol, the Japanese novelist Nisio Isin or the actor Robert Trebor. And the longest palindrome word in English? James Joyce is often credited with this for inventing the 12-letter palindrome “tattarrattat” in his 1922 novel Ulysses (to imitate the sound of a knock on the door).

Resuming with the classic ones where we left off, a man at a used-car showroom laments, “Sad, no Hondas”. A football dispute is settled by the palindromic exhortation “See referees”. A disillusioned Egyptologist laments, “Sir, I soon saw Bob was no Osiris”. At a lawyer’s office, “some men interpret nine memos”. A mathematician observes, “Sums are not set as a test on Erasmus”. An approving teacher surveys his class and exclaims, “So many dynamos!”

You will notice that all these palindromes begin with the letter “s”, since it is the easiest letter to begin and end palindromes with. It’s more challenging to try with other letters. Thus, if you are told by an amateur palindromist that aged cats are “senile felines”, you could respond: “Won’t cat lovers revolt? Act now!”

All the palindromes involve words or phrases written and read left to right and right to left, and so rely on spelling, not pronunciation. But there are also the more challenging phonetic palindromes, where it’s not the spelling that determines the palindrome, but its sound. In phonetic palindromes, a sound of speech is reversed yet identical, like “crew work” and “work crew”. The word “easy” is a phonetic palindrome; so are “new moon” or “funny enough”. The trick is to say the word or phrase out aloud and you will see what I mean. “Let Bob tell”, for instance. Or “Sorry, Ross”.

And then there are the word-unit palindromes, where it’s not spelling or phonetics that can be read forwards or backwards, but each word. You can find such palindromes in works of literature: Alexandre Dumas’s The Three Musketeers has the famous “All for one and one for all”.

Authors of books on language and wordplay have come up with the most complicated and memorable word-unit palindromes, like Martin Gardner’s “You can cage a swallow, can’t you, but you can’t swallow a cage, can you?” But it’s very rare to find a sentence that works both as a regular palindrome (spelled the same way left to right and right to left) and as a word-unit palindrome (where the words can be read that way). One that works both ways: “Was it a car or a cat I saw?”

Lovers of literature will be familiar with W. H. Auden’s clever palindrome in The Life of a Poet: “T. Eliot, top bard, notes putrid tang emanating, is sad. I’d assign it a name: gnat dirt upset on drab pot-toilet”. Auden is also credited with the simpler “Norma is as selfless as I am, Ron”.

And the promised bonus? A palindromic poem, Doppelgänger, by James A. Lindon:

“Entering the lonely house with my wife

I saw him for the first time

Peering furtively from behind a bush …

Blackness that moved,

A shape amid the shadows,

A momentary glimpse of gleaming eyes

Revealed in the ragged moon …

A closer look (he seemed to turn) might have

Revealed in the ragged moon

A momentary glimpse of gleaming eyes

A shape amid the shadows,

Blackness that moved.

Peering furtively from behind a bush,

I saw him, for the first time

Entering the lonely house with my wife.”

What’s special about this poem is that it is a verse palindrome; it reads the same from the first to the last line, as it does from the last line to the first line. Enjoy!


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