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Palindromes will have you coming and going

October, 2010

The 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 the words “level,” “deified” and “racecar” and the sentences “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 forward. Sotades, a Thracian iconoclast, is generally credited with inventing palindromic sentences. This accounts for the alternate name for palindromes, 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’s 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, ça 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, 20th-century politicians and leaders have had a penchant for palindromic ejaculations. Curiously, all these utterances are in English.

Here is a top 10 sampling:

A man, a plan, a canal – Panama. (Woodrow Wilson dedicates the opening of the Panama Canal to its chief engineer, George Washington Goethals; 1914.)

Jar a tonga; nag not a raj. (Winston Churchill admonishes Mahatma Gandhi; 1942.)

Are we not drawn onwards, we Jews, drawn onward to new era? (Attributed to David Ben-Gurion;1948.)

Can I attain a C? (George Bush soliloquizes in his quest for mediocrity while attending Yale University; 1967.)

Egad! A Red loses older adage. (Ronald Reagan admits that Gorby seems to be a swell type of guy; 1988.)

Drat! Saddam a mad dastard. (The emir of Kuwait expresses his disdain for Saddam Hussein; 1990.)

No! Rome, moron. (Sylvio Berlusconi chastises his travel agent for booking him to Nome, Alaska; 1999.)

No 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.)

Sex at noon taxes. (Attributed to Bill Clinton declining a midday service call from Monica; 1998.)

Now, I won. (George Bush is relieved after the Supreme Court rules that he has won Florida’s 25 electoral votes and will thus become the 43rd president of the United States; 2000.

Howard Richler's latest book is Strange Bedfellows: The Private Lives of Words.



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