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December 29, 2000

One of the news stories in this newspaper the other day contained a name that was spelled the same way backward and forward, and that made me stop for a moment to recall what such words are called. The answer, in case you also have forgotten, is “palindrome,” and when I finally brought that to mind it sent me searching for a classic example that is often cited. You have no doubt come cross this: “Able was I ere I saw Elba.” The quote, often wrongfully attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte, is pure palindrome. Read it front to back or back to front. The spelling is the same. There are some other good examples. If you like word games, here are a few that may amuse you.

“Eva, can I pose as Aesop in a cave?” Now there’s one where you have to divide up some of the words to make it read correctly from back to front. Maybe you remember the pop singing group ABBA. How about this slogan: “All for one and one for all?” Maybe you know someone named Hannah.

Now, here’s something you should know about. It is “I Love Me, Vol. 1: S. Wordrow’s Palindrome Encyclopedia,” revealed and interpreted by Michael Donner. According to Robert Armstrong of the Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune, the book collects palindromes of all kinds and lists them alphabetically. Reading about this, I immediately became interested because of the fascination English words hold for me. Two of the author’s example are “Onno,” a city in Italy on Lake Como, and “IUPUI,” which stands for Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis, where the 1992 U.S. Olympic swimming trials were held.

How about this one: “A man, a plan, a canal: Panama!” which is credited to Leigh Mercer, a British collector of palindromes. Donner also lists Guy Jacobson’s longer version: “A man, a plan, a cat, a ham, a yak, a yam, a hat, a canal: Panama.” (This version does not come out as a real palindrome to me, although it is very humorous.)

Donner notes that the Internet carries a palindrome of 49 words “attributed to Guy Steele and a computer-generated one of 540 words claimed by Dan Hoey.” If you’re wondering how all this got started, Donner says the father of the palindrome, “who appears at least to have been the inventor or an early practitioner of the palindromic sentence and verse, is Sotades of Maroneia (or third-century B.C. Thrace).”

My thanks to Mr. Armstrong for his report on the research being undertaken in this field of semantics.