How to make palindromes
26 February marks the 200th anniversary of Napoleon Bonaparte’s banishment to the isle of Elba in 1814 provides the historical pretext for one of the best known palindromes in the English language, Able was I ere I saw Elba. With that gem in mind, let’s have a look at what goes into making a great palindromic sentence!
Recently, we quizzed you on your knowledge of palindromic words. Words of this kind, like noon or race car, are interesting but, linguistically speaking, wholly accidental. What makes a palindromic sentence (or sentences!) remarkable is how incredibly difficult they are to construct. So, without further ado, here are some tips for composing interesting and original palindromes.
1. Start reading stuff backwards
By reading things backwards, I don’t mean Hamlet or Anna Karenina. Daily life is often filled with dull moments — sitting in traffic, waiting for the doctor, trying not to breathe on other passengers in a crowded subway car — when you find yourself staring at a sign, ad, or some other bit of text longing for a distraction. One way to amuse yourself is figuring out how to say these things backwards.
Reading backwards isn’t a special gift that some people have; with a bit of practice, it’s a skill anyone can cultivate. Suddenly, speed limit becomes timil deeps. Buffering becomes gnireffub. Delayed becomes deyaled. With enough time and patience, you’ll start to pick up not just on palindromic words like level or deed, but also the basic word pairings that are the bread and butter of palindrome construction: live and evil, saw and was, ten and net, and so forth.
2. Space out
The point of reading backwards isn’t necessarily to find words in what you’re reading though, so much as to see the elements that make them up, to detect the changes that you can make so that, backwards, the letters would still say something. Able was I ere I saw Elba is remarkable not only because its letters are palindromic; even the spacing between words is consistent. Most palindromes (and the most interesting palindromes, in particular) do not pay attention to spacing in this way. So, while it’s cool that the spaces in not a ton are also palindromic, it’s even more surprising and intriguing that, with a bit of respacing, my gym backwards still spells my gym.
3. Try to make sense, but don’t try to be serious
The reality is that there just aren’t that many meaningful things you can express through palindromes. At first, you might be tempted to compose a profound truth about the ways of the world, until you notice that truth backwards is hturt, which doesn’t leave you with too many prospects. Before you know it you’re musing to reptiles in Spanglish: el truth, eh, turtle?
This, to be clear, is not a ‘good’ palindrome. Setting your sights on a particular topic or message is almost certainly not going to go where you want it to. Instead it’s better to let your mind wander down the paths your discoveries suggest. Burger backwards, for instance is regrub. Burger and grub could easily appear in the same sentence and –re is a common ending to many words. What about burger: a rare grub? Still not great, but this is much more promising than el truth, eh, turtle.
4. Make peace with plagiarism and the great minds problem
When I was a very cool, super popular teenager, I thought I was pretty clever for putting together the palindrome Dogma is “I am god”. It seemed the perfect mixture of cryptic yet wise to my adolescent mind. As it turns out, if you do a web search for palindromes, you’ll see quite a few variants on the fact that dogma backwards is am god. A lot of people have noticed this. The same way a lot of people have picked up on the fact that desserts backwards is stressed, star backwards is rats, and Dennis backwards is sinned. Again, the number of possible palindromes out there is limited, and, as the old saying goes, great minds think alike.
You’ll notice we haven’t attributed Able was I ere I saw Elba to anyone. That’s because no one really knows who first constructed it. Obviously, the speaker is intended to be Napoleon, but there’s no reason to think the Emperor of France did say or would have said such a thing, let alone in English. According to researcher Garson O’Toole, the earliest known occurrence of the phrase was in a July 1848 issue of a periodical called Gazette of the Union and attributed to someone with the initials J. T. R. But who that person was and whether they actually came up with the palindrome is impossible to say.
This is the fate of most palindromes and of most of their authors. A genius bit of wordplay is not going to lead to literary posterity. A collective groan at the dinner table, maybe, but probably not a Pulitzer.