Jewish World Review Jan. 9, 2003 / 6 Shevat, 5763

Richard Lederer

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Have a palindromic New Year | Back in 1907, one A. C. Pearson asked readers to identify the word described in his little poem:

A turning point in every day,
Reversed I do not alter.
One half of me says haste away!
The other bids me falter.

The answer is noon. Half the word is on ("haste away!"), and half is no ("bids me falter"). Together they form a word that reads the same forwards and backwards.

A palindrome is a word, a "word row," a sentence, or a longer statement that communicates the same message when the letters of which it is composed are read in reverse order. Palindromes make us exult, "Ah ha!" "Oh, ho!" "Hey, yeh!" "Yo boy!," "Yay!" "Wow!" :Tut-Tut!" "Har-har!Rah-rah!" "Heh-heh!" "Hoorah! Har! Ooh!" and "Ahem! It's time. Ha!" rather than scratching your head like a dud, boob or poop and mumbling "huh?"

You are a palindromic child. Even before you were a tot playing with your sis and pup, you were the offspring of mom (a mama) and pop (a papa), or dad (a dada). And you are a special palindromic offspring because you are living in the fourth palindromic year of the past 11. You remember 1991, and MIM and MM -- possible Roman numeral representations of 1999 and 2000 and the last time that Arabic or Roman palindromic years will ever again occur consecutively. And now you've arrived at 2002. Don't hold your breath until the next palindromic - or calendromic -- year. 2112 won't be here for another 109 years.

In the loopy universe of plaindromes you'll find everything from the primordial MADAM, I'M ADAM (Adam's introduction of himself, in English, of course - how convenient - to Eve, the mother of all palindromes), to the epiphanous WON TON? NOT NOW, to the elegant A MAN, A PLAN, A CANAL, PANAMA, to the political STAR COMEDY BY DEMOCRATS, to the hiply contemporary MEN, I'M EMINEM, to the sinister NO, I TAIL A TERRORIST, SIR - OR RETALIATION!, to the wifty, wiggy, loopy, lunatic GO HANG A SALAMI; I'M A LASAGNA HOG, to the astonishingly long yet coherent DOC, NOTE, I DISSENT. A FAST NEVER PREVENTS A FATNESS. I DIET ON COD.

Alistair Reid expresses what may be the very heart of the fascination for matters palindromic: "The dream which occupies the tortuous mind of every palindromist is that somewhere within the confines of the language lurks the Great Palindrome, the nutshell which not only fulfills the intricate demands of the art, flowing sweetly in both directions, but which also contains the Final Truth of Things."

Palindromania is not a disorder but, rather, an evolutionary, passionate effort to cobble letters into order and truth. I say "evolutionary" because I believe that in our species is evolving a heightened wonderment at and facility with the universe of letters. We are getting better at making the alphabet dance.

No wonder that palindromes are summus, palindromic Latin for "the highest, uppermost, the top" and anagrammatically exult, "SPLENDOR AM I!"

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JWR contributor Richard Lederer is a language maven. More than a million of his books, which have been Book-of-the-Month Club and Literary Guild alternate selections, are in print. He is the host of "A Way With Words," on KPBS, San Diego Public Radio, and a regular guest on weekend "All Things Considered." He was awarded the Golden Gavel for 2002 by Toastmasters International. Comment by clicking here.


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12/05/02: English for -- make that "by" -- foreigners
11/21/02: Humorously Inclined Informational Products
11/14/02: Disorder in the Court: a Collection of 'Transquips'
10/31/02: Oxymoronology
10/24/02: The Bandwagon
10/17/02: Is life a movie? We all speak their lines
10/03/02: Brave New Words
09/26/02: English is a Crazy Language!
09/12/02: How wise is proverbial wisdom?
09/05/02: A celebration of presidential prose
08/29/02: Food for thought
08/22/02: Jest for the pun of it
08/08/02: Hop up to the kangaroo words
08/01/02: A pouchful of synonyms
07/11/02: Poli-Tickle Speeches
06/27/02: Suppository questions
06/20/02: George Orwell is looking at you
06/06/02: Jest for the health of it
05/30/02: It is truly astonishing what havoc students can wreak on the chronicles of the human race
05/16/02: A bilingual pun is twice the fun!
05/09/02: What's in a president's name?
05/03/02: Slang as it is slung
04/25/02: Abstemious words
04/19/02: This Riddle Isn't Letter-Perfect

© 2003, Richard Lederer