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In words drown I: the palindrome explored

John Murray

‘Live not on evil’, ‘Dogma: I am God’ and ‘Satan oscillate my metallic sonatas’. These are not titles of forthcoming death metal albums, but examples of palindromes – phrases that read the same backwards as they do forwards .

Palindromes are always a favourite of wordsmiths, but coming up with an original one in English is a tough challenge because, as we’ve discussed previously, English is an oddball language.

The longest everyday palindromic words in English are ‘racecar’ and ‘rotator’. I particularly like the symmetry of the latter, because it can be rotated back to front and still read the same. Compare this to Finnish though, where a soapstone vendor, or ‘saippuakivikauppias’, can claim to hold down a 19-letter palindromic profession.

The letter H is a real menace to English-speaking palindromists, with very few words ending in it unless preceded by a consonant. As a result, English palindromes tend to tell odd stories about people with names like Adam, Ana and Eve, and a totally disproportionate number of palindromic events seem to like place in the Caribbean nation of Panama.

Indeed, the perhaps the most famous example of a palindrome is “a man, a plan, a canal – Panama”. It’s possible to stuff many other items in here and examples can be found on the web of this palindrome extending to several hundred words.

Though palindromes are by their nature contrived, it’s quite possible for them to make sense and read well. Two entire novels are known to have been written in palindromic form. This is where I reveal that, as of the start of this paragraph, the rest of this article will be palindromic, which I hope shows that it’s possible to write something coherent and interesting that reads as well backwards as forwards.

On that note, I will end this piece with a quote from the Martian Ambassador of Palindromes. It’s written in his native tongue, but you should get the gist of what he’s saying:


“Gniya ssehtah w fotsigehtte gdlu oh suoyt ubeugn ot evitansi, hnin ettir w stisem ordnilapforo. Dass ab manai trameh tmorfet ouqah tiwec ei psihtdnell iwiet on.

“Tah tnosdra, wrof sasdrawk cabllews asdaert aht gnit seret nidnat nerehoc gnihte moseti rwotel? Bis sops titah tswohsepo hihc ihwcim ord! Nilapeb lliwel citrasih, tfot, serehth parg, arapsih, tfotrats ehtfo sataht leave rierehws isih tmrofcimord nilap nin ett ir w neebev ahotn wonkeras lev oner itneo.”

“W tllewda erdnaes nesekamot mehtro felb iss opeti uqstidev, irt noceru tanri eh tyberase mord nilap hgu oht.”

John is every inch the wordsmith and loves a game of Scrabble above all else. With experience writing for newspapers, John’s time at university was spent studying Creative Writing – something which comes across in his love of the pun.

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