If you spend much time on social media, then I’m sure I’m not the first person to wish you a happy palindrome week. In fact, I’m kind of late since it started last Thursday (4-10-14) and will be over after this Saturday (4-19-14). Of course it only works if you write the date like we do here in the US, with month/day/last two digits of the year, but I think you’re probably welcome to celebrate even if you prefer your dates in a different order.

In case you are unfamiliar with the word “palindrome,” it refers to a word or phrase that is written the same forward and backwards. A few examples are “mom,” “racecar,” and “kayak.” You get the idea. Word nerds are fascinated by them, they’ve been around for millennia, and there are examples of them in almost every language on earth.

photo credit: Brett Jordan via photopin cc
photo credit: Brett Jordan via photopin cc

But because it can be quite a challenge to come up with a palindrome and because the longer they are, the more nonsensical they tend to be, there are a handful of highly celebrated ones from the minds of some very clever individuals with far too much time on their hands. One of the most noted in English comes from Leigh Mercer (also celebrated for his mathematical limericks, as I’m sure you were already aware) who published in the November 13, 1948 issue of Notes & Queries: “A man, a plan, a canal – Panama!”

And boy did that get the word nerds buzzing with excitement. Mercer’s palindrome spawned numerous spin-offs, including, but certainly not limited to:

“A man, a plan, a cat, a canal – Panama!”

“A man, a plan, a cat, a ham, a yak, a yam, a hat, a canal – Panama!”

And my personal favorite: “A man, a plan, a canoe, pasta, heros, rajahs, a coloratura, maps, snipe, percale, macaroni, a gag, a banana bag, a tan, 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!”

photo credit: shannonrosa via photopin cc
photo credit: shannonrosa via photopin cc

All of this nerdy word fun is generally traced back to a poet of Ancient Greece named Sotades who is credited with making the palindrome a thing. He lived during the reign of Ptolemy II in the 3rd century BC and history remembers him best as Sotades the Obscene, since the majority of his poems began “There once was a man from Nantucket.”

Eventually, Sotades decided to turn his poetic attention to the love life of Ptolemy II, which was something of a hot mess. The king didn’t like the attention and had the poet arrested and, eventually, wrapped in lead and thrown into the sea.

Despite his untimely end and the questionable subject of his poems, Sotades is remembered as a genius with words, once allegedly rewriting the Iliad in palindromic verse, presumably changing the setting to Panama. Unfortunately, I can’t post any of the poet’s work here mostly because this is a family-friendly blog, but also because it was lost to history (possibly wrapped in lead and thrown into the sea).

photo credit: engnr_chik via photopin cc
photo credit: engnr_chik via photopin cc

But his legacy has been carried on by people like Mercer and by comedian and wordplay enthusiast Demitri Martin who recently penned a 500 word palindromic poem that mentions neither Panama nor Nantucket, but is, in the tradition of Sotades the Obscene, too dirty to post on this blog. Still, it’s a pretty impressive work, because, it turns out palindrom-ing is not as easy as it looks…Dang it!


  1. A FANTASTIC post, Sarah! I can’t wait to share this piece with my daughter, a ninth grade English teacher! Check it out, Molly!

    Sincerely, Bob

    Dr. Bob Stouffer, Superintendent Des Moines Christian School 13007 Douglas Parkway, Suite 100 Urbandale, Iowa 50323 515.252.2480, Extension 1007 rstouffer@dmcs.org


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