The Ecphorizer

Drawn Onward
Josefa Heifetz

Issue #13 (September 1982)

Word:  Do no words revers'd, row on odd row

According to Howard Bergerson1, the inventor of palindromic verse was a third century Thracian poet named Sotades. (Jim Sotades? Leonard Sotades? Sy?) What I have neither the energy nor incentive to discover is whether Sotades the Thracian poet started with simple sentences, or

Smug nor evil was I ere I saw liver on gums.

whether that honor belongs to an even older Greek, or possibly a passing Egyptian. The likeliest and least colorful explanation is that the palindromic sentence is as old as language itself.

[quoteright]Picture, if you will, cavewoman Rocky One (Raquel Une, if you'e French) warning her youngest of an approaching tyrannosaurus2: "Tuohcta, watch out!" If only she had grabbed a sharp instrument and ground onto cave-wall history that first palindrome.

So much for etiology. As for etymology, the word, palindrome, comes from the Greek, "palindromos" (running back again) which can be divided into "palin" (again) and "drom" (run). I have also seen palindromes described as sotadic and cancrine. (Cancrine means crablike, hence palindromic, though how that follows escapes me; I thought crabs moved sideways.)

My own fascination with two-way sentences began with the first (and best) palindrome I've ever seen: Leigh Mercer's A man, a plan, a canal: Panama. It's all downhill from there, but at varying grades. After trying every geographical entry ending in -a listed in my world atlas, I emerged with A gnat, a knot, a rat on Katanga. Thus began a series of parody efforts3 that culminated in He went  "ah! a man, a pal, a sisal: a Panama hat. New. eh?" In a subsequent honing, it became Get, ah, a man, a pal, a sisal (a Panama hat, e.g.).  I WILL NOT GIVE UP THAT DAMNED HAT! And that damned hat, of course, is what causes the trouble. But the thrill of discovering that sisal forms the center (that is, the sis- part) of the palindrome, and that, miracle of miracles, Panama hats are, indeed, made of that magnificently cancrinous material, is a coincidence to be treasured at whatever the syntactical cost (as in the two examples cited).

Fascination soon became addiction. I was relieved to learn that Roger Angell4 shares this obsession and also frittered away many hours searching for parodies and updates. One of his best was inspired by "Madam, I'm Adam" ( a classic whose authorship I've been unable to trace). Angell created an entire one-act play as an introduction (or possibly, an apologia) which I will mercilessly prune: A congressman appears at the door of a Welsh miner, smiles charmingly and says "Llewopnotyalc, Madam, I'm Adam Clayton Powell." Naturally, I, too, had to have a go at Adam, and it was tough going. I never anticipated that reason and syntax would disappear with such ease. Consider the following: "Nam Dan am I, Madam, I'm an adman" and "I'm aloof, Den Madam I'm a damned fool am I." These defects look obvious in print, but after hours of transforming typed efforts into paper balls (and missing the wastebasket with frenzied rim-shots) anything APPROACHING English looks plausible as long as it can be coaxed into unnatural symmetry. I finally quit after producing "Sir, I'm Iris" and "No, Madam, I'm NOT Adam; I'm Ada Tonmima Damon."

Able was I ere I saw Elba is the third of the classic trio, and the one which still hasn't loosened its grip on me. It didn't leave Mr. Angell without scars, either. Remarkable was I ere I saw Elba, Kramer is my favorite. Someone else, possibly Leigh Mercer, produced Sore was I ere I saw Eros. As for me, I got hopelessly mired in trying for Gable was I...Sable wore I...and Dicle was I ere I saw El Cid. (Not to mention Unstable was I...Disabled was I...and Abel saw I ere I was Leba). I have blissfully entered a state of remission, having found Smug nor evil was I ere I saw liver on gums. And for variety, and to prove that I did consider these, the words, pal, stressed, and dog, can be substituted for smug. Previous bouts with the Napoleonic palindrome yielded A slut was I ere I saw Tulsa, followed immediately by Not so, Boston.

The manipulation of letters into words that will let themselves be torn asunder, pushed inside-out, joined by apostrophes, or made into English by creative (sometimes VERY creative) punctuation often takes place unconsciously. Waiting for a red light the other day, seemed to summon just the right brain wave for the task (alpha? beta? nu?). Never odd or even, sides reversed, is never odd or even is my best palindrome to date. I had been fooling around with never even for a few days, and had chanced upon the absolutely stunning sides reversed is years ago while working on yet another palindrome. And, as they say, it all came together by the traffic light at the intersection of East Blithedale and Camino Alto.

Usually, however, my logomachinations are set in motion while fully conscious, and tend to hover around certain themes, the most recent being a bilingual one. I'm sure any of you who've written letters to France have noticed, upon writing your return address on the envelope, that the "etats" of Etats Unis (United States) is state spelled backwards. Now that's too good to let lie there. I mean, that's a palindromist's dream: Is etat, state? Si! Go ahead, look it up in your New Cassell's French Dictionary. "Si" does mean yes in French, though used less frequently and more casually than "oui." But please don't look it up in your Petit Larousse (which is, in fact, huge). It's not in. (The Larousse people have a strange sense of the relative importance of things and people. Beethoven gets a scant three-fourths of an inch, while Charles the Foolhardy, last duke of Burgundy, som of Philip the Good, merits a full two inches).

To continue in a bilingual vein: Etna love is Roman amor; si, e volante. For some reason, possibly an acute attack of sanity, I didn't drive the Roman amor idea into the ground. I wish that I could say the same for Latin in Ital(y).  So far, this last idea has spawned Sin if ogre's in Italy; my Latin is, ergo, finis and Any Latin in Italy Na! It's the "na," of course, that will keep me at it until I (or, god forbid, someone else) can improve it.

In addition to Leigh Mercer, other giants in the field include J. A. Lindon, (Dennis and Edna sinned and Red rum, sir, is murder among many) George Marvill (Too hot to hoot) and Dmitri Borgmann (A new order began, a more Roman age bred Rowena).

On the first page of Bergerson's book Palindromes And Anagrams, (which contains the above examples plus scores more) he states: "...whether those strange individuals so inexplicably obsessed with reversible writing have always been with us or not, it would at least seem safe to say that no official post has ever been created specifically for a palindromist." That's all you know, Howard. Although it's true that the San Francisco Regional office of Palindrome Inspection has been shelved, the honor once bestowed upon me was one I held in the highest esteem.

As nemesis, I'se Mensa!

1. In his excellent book, Palindromes and Anagrams, Dover Publications, 1973.

2. I know that there were no humans schlepping through the Mesozoic. I also know that there have been no Tyrannosaurus sightings for at least sixty million years. But when you luck onto a permissive editor, certain things become irresistible.

3. Described in a short article, "Palindromania,"  Mensa Bulletin, April 1978.

4. Who wrote of his experience in a wonderfully funny New Yorker piece (May 31, 1969) called "Ainmosni". 

Besides being former official Palindrome Inspector for SF Mensa, Josefa Heifetz is a professional writer of note, and the author of Mrs. Byrne's Dictionary of Unusual, Obscure, and Preposterous Words.

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