Words & Stuff

PP: Party Boobytrap

(18 October 1998)

Everyone knows what a palindrome is: a word that reads the same backwards as forwards (except for spaces and punctuation). Maybe the fact that everyone knows about them is why it's taken me a year and a half to get around to writing about them.

The most famous palindrome is probably "Madam, I'm Adam." Perhaps the second-most famous (and one of the best in terms of clarity and sticking to a topic) is the short-short story version of the creation of the Panama canal:

A man, a plan, a canal: Panama!

There have been dozens of variations on that line. For instance, if you don't remember the order of the terms right, you can find yourself saying

A plan, a man, a canam: analpa!

(I'm uncertain who to attribute that one to, but I think it may've been Elliott.) One of Mary Ann Madden's "Near Misses" contests yielded

A man, a plan, a canal: Suez!

And someone playing around with the general structure ended up with

A fool, a tool, a pool: loopalootaloofa!

At some point, someone had the bright idea of doing a computer search to expand the Panama original. One expanded version, relayed by John Kaminar, goes:

A man, a plan, a canoe, pasta, hero's rajahs, a coloratura, maps, snipe, percale, macaroni, a gag, a banana bag, a tan, a cat, a mane, paper, a Toyota, rep, a pen, a mat, a can, a tag, a banana bag again (or a camel), a crepe, pins, spam, a rut, a Rolo, cash, a jar, sore hats, a peon, a canal, Panama!

(I love "a banana bag again.")

Dan Hoey's definitive 1984 computer-assisted version starts out:

A man, a plan, a caret, a ban, a myriad, a sum, a lac, a liar, a hoop, a pint, a catalpa...

152 items later, it ends, predictably (the problem with palindromic phrases is that you can be pretty sure how they're going to end ahead of time):

...a plat, a catnip, a pooh, a rail, a calamus, a dairyman, a bater, a canal -- Panama.

The complete version, along with plenty of other palindromic fun including dozens of non-English palindromes, can be found in the language section of the rec.puzzles archive; the English palindromes are in part 3 of that section, including such tidbits as the fact that "footstool" is the longest English-language Morse Code palindrome.

One last Panama-style item:

"To make a prairie, it takes a clover and one bee
And reverie.
But reverie alone will do
If bees are few."
Emily Dickinson (roughly)

If only Ipanema were a prairie, the above poem would be nicely summarized by this:

Amen, apian, ana -- Ipanema!

(where "ana" means "an equal quantity of each")

There are plenty of books that include palindromes; my favorite is Go Hang a Salami; I'm a Lasagna Hog!, by Jon Agee, because the palindromes are unusual (if a little surreal sometimes), and the illustrations generally provide amusing situations in which the palindromes make sense.

Besides letter palindromes, there are also word palindromes, such as:

You can cage a swallow, can't you, but you can't swallow a cage, can you?


So patient a doctor to try to doctor a patient so.

There are also poems (and even at least one published short story) which are line or sentence palindromes; I find them generally less interesting than word and letter palindromes, and the lack of sense tends to annoy me more at a greater length.

Finally, a palindrome-related category I believe I invented: words and phrases that are the same if rot-13ed (each letter shifted 13 letters in the alphabet) and then reversed:

Banana? No!
bar Eno
er, gnu hater
Garp cent
gnu hat
Karen X [Malcolm's sister?]
Xena nark
Zen arm

For links to some palindrome pages, see this page (whose URL is a palindrome).

Reader comments and addenda page

Jed Hartman <logophilia@kith.org>