Sunday, 15 April 2012

Elephant No. 196: Palindromes

I don't feel like making anything today, so I thought I would exercise my brain by trying to construct a palindrome or two.

A palindrome is any sequence of units that reads the same way in both directions. Although words and phrases are the most common form of palindrome to most of us, there are also numerical palindromes, art palindromes, and even biological palindromes.

The word "palindrome" was first coined by English writer Ben Jonson during the seventeenth century from the Greek words palin ("again") and dromos ("direction"). Palindromes as a literary form date back to at least A.D. 79, based on a Latin word square found at Herculaneum, which reads SATOR AREPO TENET OPERA ROTAS ("The sower Arepo holds works wheels"). This palindrome is particularly interesting in that it works both horizontally and vertically, as does a similar Hebrew palindrome.

The Sator Square in Opp├Ęde, France: one of many based on the original at Herculaneum.
Photo: M. Disdero

Linguistic palindromes are found in all languages, and in their earliest forms were particularly popular for religious inscriptions. Nor have they always limited to reasonably short forms. At least two full-length English-language novels have been written as palindromes: Satire: Veritas (1980) by David Stephens, with a length of 58,795 words; and Dr. Awkward & Olson in Oslo (1986) by Lawrence Levine, with a length of 31,954 words.

Most palindromes, however, are short, consisting of a single phrase or sentence, such as the one most of us learned as children: "Madam, I'm Adam." Similar sentences include, "Was it a rat I saw?" or "Never odd or even" or "A Toyota's a Toyota."

In the world of numerals, a palindromic number is simply one that can be read the same backwards and forwards, such as 1221. Palindromic dates get people particularly excited, depending on how they are transcribed numerically. This means that February 21, 2012 will be a palindrome to any country that translates it numerically as "21-2-12" but not so much in the United States, where it becomes "2-21-12", or Sweden, where it would be "2012-02-21."

One of the more bizarre forms of palindrome is the acoustical palindrome. This is when a recorded spoken phrase sounds the same played backwards or forwards. Composer John Oswald is credited with this particular discovery in 1974, when he was working on audiotapes of William S. Burroughs reading his works. Apparently, whenever Burroughs said "I got", it still sounded like "I got" when played backwards.

Music also abounds in palindromes. Haydn's Symphony No. 47 in G has long been called "The Palindrome" because the third movement is a musical palindrome. It goes forwards twice, backwards twice, and ends up in the same place. Many other composers have also written musical palindromes, including Mozart (Scherzo-Duetto di Mozart), Stravinsky (The Owl and the Pussycat) and Berg (Lulu interlude). There is also the unusual table canon form, which is a rectangular piece of sheet music played by two musicians facing one another across a table, with the music between them. One is thus reading the music upside-down, similar to the SATOR AREPO square mentioned earlier.

Popular music has also gotten into the act. Bands such as Soundgarden, They Might Be Giants, The Grateful Dead, and even ABBA have all incorporated palindromes in either album titles, lyrics or music. One of the more interesting popular music palindromes is a 2003 installation commissioned from sculptor Roman De Salvo and composer Joseph Waters for the city of San Diego, California. Crab Carillon took the form of 488 tuned chimes constructed as a safety railing on the 25th Street overpass. The chimes could be struck by pedestrians as they crossed the walkway, with a melody that played the same from either direction.

Comic books have also dabbled in palindromes. Volume 3 of Les Terres creuses by Luc and Francois Schuten features a mirror image for each frame. Similarly, Watchmen No. 5, "Fearful Symmetry" is more or less a palindrome from beginning to end, with the design of the first and last pages—then the second and second-last pages and so forth—mirroring each other until the centre spread, which is roughly symmetrical in layout as well.

Weirdly, the world of biology also appears to have naturally-occurring palindromes. DNA often has strands of nucleotides that always pair the same way, but in reverse order. In other words, the sequence ACCTAGGT will pair with TGGATCCA, forming a palindrome. Palindromes are also thought to be prevalent in proteins—which may be due to the similar structure of the RNA that directs protein synthesis.

Palindrome in DNA structure.

However, back to linguistic palindromes, since that's the only kind I'm capable of producing. For many years, people appear to have delighted in coming up with the longest-possible palindromic words. Other languages far outstrip English in this particular context. The longest palindromic word in English is thought to be "tattarrattat" from Ulysses by James Joyce. Seems pretty good, until you see things like the Finnish word saippuakivikauppias ("soapstone vendor"), the even longer saippuakuppinippukauppias ("soap dish wholesale vendor"), or my personal favourite: koortsmeetsysteemstrook, a Dutch word for "thermometer".

For today's elephant, I knew I would have my work cut out for me, because "elephant" is virtually impossible to reverse and still make any sense. Ditto "pachyderm", "trunk" and "tusk". Perhaps, I thought, I could find words that infer elephant without actually having to use it. Or maybe various foreign words for elephant.

I found that the easiest way to do this—for me, anyway—is to position the troublesome word, then try to find things to fit around it. The main thing you appear to need in order to produce palindromes is an ability to break down words and see workable patterns within them. It's a highly logical activity, which may be why I found it incredibly difficult. How anyone could write an entire novel and not have it be complete nonsense is beyond me.

Here are my only successful attempts. And my brain hurts.

Banana nab: A favourite elephant activity
A mammal not on lam, Mama: Elephant recaptured after a rampage through city streets
Elephant rat deliver reviled tart? Nah, Pele: Response to a late pastry order
Mulgy raid, diary glum: Logbook entry following elephant thefts at a military compound
Oozed mud, dum de zoo: Elephant ditty at bathtime

I don't think I'd rush to try this again, but I have renewed respect for anyone who can do this easily. I see now why most palindromes are slightly facile, and also why this may work better in languages other than English. I even tried one in French, which is the only other language in which I am relatively fluent. Although hard as well, French was slightly easier. I just thought making myself ridiculous in a single language was enough for one day.

Elephant Lore of the Day
In one of his Just So Stories, Rudyard Kipling tells the story of The Elephant Child, often known as "How the Elephant Got Its Trunk". In that tale, a crocodile latches onto a baby elephant's nose. As the elephant tries to pull free, its nose gets stretched and stretched until it has turned into a trunk.

This is a surprisingly familiar phenomenon, particularly in Africa. Elephants are often getting caught out by crocodiles lurking around watering holes. When the elephant puts its trunk into the water, a crocodile will latch on, sometimes taking a piece of the trunk with it.

Crocodiles are not always successful, however. In late 2010, a baby elephant in South Africa's Kruger National Park dipped its trunk in a watering hole, only to be caught when a crocodile sprang from a nearby hiding place and bit into the elephant's trunk.

The baby elephant, of course, began to howl and squeal, bringing an entire herd of elephants thundering towards the watering hole. By stamping the ground and trumpeting, the herd scared off the crocodile, then remained with the baby until it had recovered.

Baby elephant caught by crocodile, Kruger National Park, South Africa, 2010
Photo: © Johan Opperman/


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