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Let's celebrate the palindrome!

Blog | By Gyles Brandreth | Feb 03, 2020


I was awake early this morning. I set my alarm to go off at 2.00 am so I could enjoy a unique moment on a special day. At two minutes two seconds past two in the early hours of today, the second of February 2020, it was 02:02:02 on 02.02.2020 . . . exciting, eh?

I love palindromes and today (already a special day in our family because it marks my daughter Saethryd’s birthday) is extra-special: this is the world’s first global palindromic date in 909 years. In some countries (like the UK) we put the day before the month; in others (like the US) the month comes first. Today, wherever you live, the date is a palindrome - reading the same backwards as forwards; 02.02.2020. The last global palindromic date was 11/11/1111. The next won’t be until 12/12/2121, 101 years from now - so the chances are I’ll miss it.

That’s why I’m going to celebrate today - which also happens to be day 33 of the year (another palindromic number!) and, because it’s a Leap Year, there are 333 days to go before the year is done - 333 is another palindrome.

Since you’re wondering (and I know you are), saippuakauppias is the longest-known palindromic word. It is a 15-letter Finnish word meaning ‘soap seller’.

In the world of words, a palindrome is a word like deed or level or repaper or noon or redder or civic or tenet or kayak or nun that reads the same backwards as forwards.

The longest palindromic word in everyday English is redivider with nine letters. Rotavator is a nine-letter registered trademark that has found its way into the dictionary and detartrated, with eleven letters, is a contrived chemical term still hoping to find its way there. Dictionaries of Native American already feature the 12-letter kinnikkinnik which is a dried leaf and bark mixture sometimes smoked by Cree people.

Tut-tut is one of the oldest and most international palindromes. If they spoke English in the Garden of Eden, then ‘Madam, I’m Adam’ was the first palindrome. If not, then it is probably one John Taylor who came up with the first palindromic sentence on record. At the beginning of the seventeenth century he wrote:

Lewd did I live & evil I did dwel

Spelling habits have changed; today a more acceptable version would read:

Evil I did dwell: lewd did I live

More recent palindromes involve people’s names, some of them quite famous:

Was it Eliot’s toilet I saw?

No mists reign st Tangier, St Simon!

Sums are not set as a test on Erasmus

Some palindromes are supposed to have been spoken by the famous. The composer Henry Purcell is said to have remarked:

Egad, a base tone denotes a bad age!

And it is well known that the Emperor Napoleon was wont to complain during his exile:

Able was I ere I saw Elba

For a modern palindrome that succinctly tells a story, it would b e hard to beat this one by Leigh Mercer:

A man, a plan, a canal – Panama

And here are the runners-up on my scoresheet of top palindromic sentences. Each one makes sense – sort of.

Was it a car or a cat I saw?

Pull up if I pull up

Ten animals I slam in a net

In a regal age ran I

Yawn a more Roman way

Some men interpret nine memos

Never odd or even

TELL ME A STORY

The American humourist James Thurber enjoyed palindromes – ‘He goddam mad dog, eh?’ was one of his best efforts – but few other writers of note have attempted them. The problem is that once they stretch beyond a couple of dozen letters or so, they cease to make sense. This 51-letter palindrome by Penelope Gilliatt is an exception:

Doc, note I dissent. A fast never prevents a fatness. I diet on cod.

The poet and committed word player, J A Lindon, is the author of the only known palindrome to include an 18-letter word. To understand it (and excuse it) you need to know that Beryl has a hippie husband who is both free-thinking and something of a sun worshipper. Yes, he runs around the garden in the nude. His friend, Ned, asks him if he does this to annoy poor Beryl and this is his palindromic reply:

Named undenominationally rebel, I rile Beryl? La, no! I tan. I’m, O Ned, nude man!

Apparently, two palindromic novels have been published: Satire: Veritas by David Stephens (1980, running to 58,795 letters), and Dr Awkward & Olson in Oslo by Lawrence Levine (1986, 31,954 words), but I have not read them. The longest palindromic composition I have struggled through ran to 2,769 letters, but it was mostly gobbledygook – to me, at least. The story began: ‘’Spot stops to hoot at a mad sung aria . . .’ You can guess how it ended: ‘Agnu’s damn, at a too hot spot, stops.’

However, there is hope for palindromic fiction – if it is approached in the right way. The American wit and versifier Willard Espy reported an entertaining interview in the Harvard Bulletin between ‘Professor R Osseforp, holder of the Emor D Nilap Chair in Palindromology at Harvard and Solomon W Golomb (PhD ’57)’ in which the reply to every question was a neat palindrome:

‘And what about your new novel, could you tell me the title?’

‘Dennis Sinned.’

‘Intriguing. What is the plot?’

‘Dennis and Edna sinned.’

‘I see. Is there more to it than that?’

‘Dennis Krats and Edna Stark sinned.’

‘Now it all becomes clear,’ I agreed. ‘Tell me, with all this concern about the ecology, what kind of car are you driving nowadays?’

‘A Toyota.’

‘Naturally, and how about your colleague, Professor Nustad?’

‘Nustad? A Datsun.’

I could write a book about all this. (Indeed, I have. Several. The most recent is called Word Play and you can find out more about it on the Books page here on my website. And Susie Dent and I sometimes chat about this sort of stuff on our podcast: Something Rhymes with Purple - you can reach it via the podcast page here.)

Must dash. I don’t just need to post this on 02.02.2020, I want to post it at NOON. (See what I did there? Yey!)