Search Results for: palindrom

Le grand palindrome.

Fond as I am of Georges Perec (whose name, despite what many believe, does not have an accent aigu, even though it is pronounced as if it had one, [peʁɛk] — Perec is the Polish spelling of the name usually anglicized as Peretz, and once the family moved to France it got Frenchified in pronunciation), I was unaware of his “grand palindrome” of 1,247 words (5,566 letters), which you can read here (note once again that his name does not have an accent aigu, even though it is pronounced as if it had one). I suppose someone could translate the whole thing, but apparently only the beginning and end have been rendered into English, by David Bellos (his biographer) and Harry Mathews (his friend and fellow Oulipian), as quoted in this 2011 blog post by Stephen Saperstein Frug. The former begins:

Trace the uneven palindrome. Snow. A trifle, says Hercules. Unadorned repentance, this piece born [of] Perec. [If] the bow of reading is too heavy, read back-to-front.

The latter (and better):

Trace the unequal palindrome. Snow. A trifle, Hercules would say. Rough penitence, this writing born as Perec. The read arch is too heavy: read vice-versa….

For the renditions of the ending, as well as some jovial discussion, follow the link to Frug’s post. Thanks, David!

Palindromes at Bletchley.

Palindromist Magazine editor Mark Saltveit sent me a link to his article “The Palindrome Game of the Enigma Codebreakers,” a must-read for anyone interested in either palindromes or the famous “imitation game” codebreakers of Bletchley Park. A sample:

Few are aware that in their spare time, these same codebreakers held a competition that created several of the finest English-language palindromes, those sentences that read the same backward and forward.

Peter Hilton, the young math student who (in the film, anyway) had a brother on a doomed Royal Navy convoy, won by writing what many consider the best palindrome ever:

      Doc, note: I dissent. A fast never prevents a fatness. I diet on cod.

Not only is this masterpiece concise, confident and just odd enough to get a chuckle, it remains excellent dietary advice some 70 years later. It took most people 60 of those years to finally accept the futility of dieting.

Incredibly, the young codebreaker did not use paper or pencil while composing his epic palindrome. He simply lay on his bed, eyes closed, and assembled it in his mind over one long night. It took him five hours.

(Palindromes previously at LH.)


People keep sending me this link, so here it is: Gregory Kornbluh’s entertaining (and a bit disturbing) article on Barry Duncan, master palindromist (from The Believer).

When you think about palindromes, you probably just think they’re fun. For Duncan, though, they’re much more than that. He writes them constantly. He sees them everywhere. Have you ever killed twenty dull minutes scanning the grid of a word-search puzzle, and then afterward found yourself with a bit of a word-search hangover, your eyes involuntarily searching for words everywhere? Imagine doing the word search for three decades. That’s Barry Duncan with palindromes.

And he takes them very seriously indeed. Read and enjoy!
Update. Mark Saltveit of The Palindromist sent me a link to a YouTube clip of his very funny (and brief) standup palindrome routine. Enjoy!


Those of you who like both mystery novels and word puzzles should check out a post at Suzanne E. McCarthy’s Abecedaria:

This novel is set in Thule Bay in northern Greenland. This could only be Qaanaaq, a settlement whose name is a palindrome. Several clues point to the use of the palindrome in deciphering the two ‘keywords’ of the story, the words written on the scroll placed in the golem’s mouth…

The first keyword is the ‘word of creation’ which brings the golem to life; and the second keyword, a reverse of the first, will destroy him…

I particularly enjoyed this tidbit:

Next, I switched to researching the legend of the golem in history. I found out that one of the original ‘words of creation’ was ‘emeth‘ (truth) written on the golem’s forehead. With the erasure of the ‘e’ altering ’emeth’ to read ‘meth’ (death), the golem was destroyed.

Language is powerful stuff!

Small Up.

I was saddened to hear of Roger Angell’s death — though not surprised, since he was 101 years old. He was the greatest baseball writer who ever lived (and he only got into the Hall of Fame by the skin of his teeth, since the sportswriters who do the voting didn’t have time for a magazine guy who wasn’t there day in, day out like they were); an annual highlight of my life as a fan was buying the copy of the New Yorker with his essay on the season just past, and I’ll never forget the palindromic title of the 1986 installment that culminated in the long-drawn-out, agonizing defeat of the seemingly eternally cursed Red Sox by my long-hapless, suddenly triumphant Mets: NOT SO, BOSTON. I am smuggling him into the hallowed halls of the Hattery by quoting a paragraph with an unusual verb usage, from his brilliant 1980 piece on Bob Gibson (the article link should work at the moment even for nonsubscribers, and anyone who loves the game should read the whole thing):

On another day, Omaha slowly came to a broil under a glazy white sun while Gibson and I ran some early-morning errands in his car—a visit to his bank, a stop at the drive-in window of another bank, where he picked up the payroll checks for Gibby’s—and wound up at the restaurant, where the daytime help greeted the boss cheerfully. Gibson seemed in an easy frame of mind, and he looked younger than ever. I recalled that many of his teammates had told me what good company he was in the dugout and on road trips—on days when he wasn’t pitching. He was a comical, shrill-voiced bench jockey, and a grouchy but lighthearted clubhouse agitator, who was sometimes known to bang a bat repeatedly and horribly on the metal locker of a teammate who was seen to be suffering the aftereffects of too many ice-cream sodas the previous evening. While he drove, Gibson, with a little urging, recalled how he had pitched to some of the prime hitters of his day—inside fastballs to Willie Mays (who feasted on breaking pitches), belt-high inside deliveries to Eddie Mathews, low and away to Roberto Clemente, and so on. He said that Frank Robinson used to deceive pitchers with his plate-crowding (Robinson was a right-handed slugger of fearsome power, whose customary stance at the plate was that of an impatient subway traveller leaning over the edge of the platform and peering down the tracks for the D train), because they took it to mean that he was eager for an inside pitch. “Besides,” he said, “they’d be afraid of hitting him and putting him on base. So they’d work him outside, and he’d hit the shit out of the ball. I always tried him inside, and I got him out there—sometimes. He was like Willie Mays—if you got the ball outside to Willie at all, he’d just kill you. The same with Clemente. I could throw him a fastball knee-high on the outside corner seventeen times in a row, but if I ever got it two inches up, he’d hit it out of sight. That’s the mark of a good hitter—the tiniest mistake and he’ll punish you. Other batters—well, somebody like Joe Adcock was just a guess hitter. You’d pitch him up and in, and he’d swing and miss every time. He just didn’t give a damn. I don’t know what’s the matter with so many hitters—it’s like their brains small up.” He shook his head and laughed softly. “Me, too. I got beat by Tommy Davis twice the same way. In one game, I’d struck him out three times on sliders away. But I saw that he’d been inching up and inching up toward that part of the plate, so I decided to fool him and come inside, and he hit a homer and beat me, one-oh. And then, in another game, I did exactly the same thing. I tried to outthink him, and he hit the inside pitch for a homer, and it was one-oh all over again. So I could get dumb, too.”

(I read aloud much of that paragraph, like so much else in the essay, to my wife, lingering with especial delight on “whose customary stance at the plate was that of an impatient subway traveller leaning over the edge of the platform and peering down the tracks for the D train.”) I was struck by Gibson’s “it’s like their brains small up”; the OED has an entry for the unusual verb to small (1. transitive. To make thin or small; to lessen, reduce. Also with down. […] 2. intransitive. To become thin or small; to diminish, grow less. Also with down, off), but no examples of it with up. Here are a couple of recent citations:

1999 National Geographic Dec. 47/2 The deer adapted to their environment by smalling down and enjoying having Big Pine to themselves.
2002 S. Burke Deadwater viii. 75 Her voice smalled off so pathetically that he might have hugged her but that she was responding too well.

Maybe now Gibby will make it in to the OED on Angell’s wings.
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Call Me tato.

The wonderful Marian Schwartz (see this 2011 post) has an essay in Literary Hub whose title is nicely descriptive: How the Russian and Ukrainian Languages Intersect in Eugene Vodolazkin’s Brisbane. Here are some noteworthy passages:

Brisbane opens with the central character, Gleb Yanovsky, a world-famous guitarist, noticing a nearly imperceptible flaw in his tremolo during a concert. Soon after, he receives a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. The novel pursues two lines of narrative: one in the present, as Gleb contrives to live his life and even perform despite this diagnosis; and one in the past, starting with Gleb as a boy in Kyiv and moving through his coming-to-be as a musician, through young love, and eventually to fame and the good and bad his fame brings. The two narrative lines alternate like a fugue. […]

Born in Kyiv to a Ukrainian father and a Russian mother, Gleb is educated first in Ukrainian, then in Russian. The bilingual and bicultural nature of Gleb’s world is so deeply embedded in Russians’ and Ukrainians’ reality that the Russian reviews don’t have to point it out. Both Ukrainians and Russians viscerally understand this state of being, and Gleb himself embraces his native cultural duality.

Ukrainian makes a pointed entrance in the book in the very first pages when it appears untranslated, in the Ukrainian Cyrillic alphabet, in the words of Gleb’s Ukrainian-speaking father, Fyodor. Tolstoy footnoted the French in War and Peace. Junot Díaz footnoted the Spanish in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. For the most part, Vodolazkin felt no such need. He rightly assumes the Russian reader will understand his Ukrainian. Rather, at this first appearance, the author offers a lovely long footnote explaining Ukrainian pronunciation for Russian speakers, by way of emphasizing the language’s musicality.

[Read more…]


Thanks to the comments on Dmitry Pruss’s Facebook post, I went to Wiktionary and learned (or re-learned) that the familiar Russian word чемодан (chemodan) ‘suitcase’ is “Via a Turkic medium, from Persian جامه‌دان‎ (jâme-dân, ‘suitcase’)” [literally ‘garment-holder’]. And they add this very interesting fact: “Note that this Russian term has later become the source of re-borrowing into modern Persian چمدان‎ (čamedân) and many Turkic languages.” In the FB thread, Jamile Modarress Woods wrote “Chamedan is the name of a BBC program about Iranian exiles.” Reborrowings are fun.

And the post itself featured the marvelous Russian palindrome “чемодан… а надо меч” [a suitcase… but a sword is needed], illustrated by an image of Julius Caesar being attacked by a horde of assassins. Sadly, no one thought to photoshop in a suitcase.

Addendum. I won’t make a separate post of it, but the immortal Yuz Aleshkovsky has turned out, alas, to be mortal after all; he died today in Tampa. Here’s my post about him.


Kevin Riordan posts at M/m about the history of that signal of modernity, the Kodak camera, with many glorious illustrations, mostly ads. The post begins:

In 1888, the George Eastman Company put the first film-roll camera on the market. The new “Kodak” put photographic practice into the hands of many amateurs and hobbyists for the first time. This camera had immediate cultural effect, shaping how people saw and recorded things—even when they didn’t have a Kodak with them. In 1890, for example, the American journalist Nellie Bly had few regrets about her record-breaking trip around the world, except that in her “hasty departure [she] forgot to take a Kodak.” Five years later, when H. G. Wells’s Time Traveller reached an astonishing future, he echoed the sentiment: “If only I had thought of a Kodak!” Despite advertising campaigns urging travelers to not forget their cameras, many didn’t learn the lesson. In Virginia Woolf’s The Voyage Out (1915), St. John Hirst reproaches himself in South America: “What an ass I was not to bring my Kodak!” Portable cameras and personal photography became ubiquitous, but everyone kept forgetting their Kodaks (figs. 1–2).

Fig. 2, a 1923 Parisian example, has N’oubliez pas votre “Kodak.” The whole story is worth reading, and of course don’t miss the ads, but I’m posting it mainly for the linguistic bits:

Eastman squabbled with other pioneers over terminology. When a competitor sought to patent the “combination” camera, Eastman protested that, if one could trademark “combination,” one may as well “prevent your fellow citizens from using the English language.” He realized that words, like cameras, do things, and a new photographic world required a new vocabulary. So in the 1888 patent Eastman coined “Kodak,” a peculiar word, the ks affording near-palindromic symmetry (fig. 6). Eastman believed Kodak could be easily pronounced across languages, and he particularly liked its consonants, which he called “strong and incisive . . . firm and unyielding” (cited in Brayer, George Eastman, 63). Kodak soon became not just a product name but a portable idea, an imagined accessory, and a perceptual prosthesis. In the marketing and in colloquial parlance, the name became an adjective (the “Kodak girl”), a verb (“Let the children Kodak”), and a component for other nouns (“Kodakery”) (figs. 7–8).

I just recently read the Russian equivalent in Dombrovsky’s Факультет ненужных вещей (post): “А скоро у него появился ещё фотоаппарат «кодак» и пистолет «монтекристо»” [Soon he also displayed his Kodak camera and Montecristo pistol]; the first example in the corpus is from 1901 (earlier hits are for Kodak Fortress): “В магазине фотографических принадлежностей фирмы Кодак некий Девисон похитил несколько тысяч фотографических карточек и скрылся” [A certain Davison stole several thousand photographic cards from the Kodak camera store and disappeared]. (Hat tip to Jonathan Morse for the link.)


Slavomír Čéplö, aka bulbul, recently gave me a copy of Michael Cooperson’s translation of al-Hariri’s Maqāmāt, called Impostures (see this ancient LH post); the publisher’s blurb says:

An itinerant con man. A gullible eyewitness narrator. Voices spanning continents and centuries. These elements come together in Impostures, a groundbreaking new translation of a celebrated work of Arabic literature.

Impostures follows the roguish Abu Zayd al-Saruji in his adventures around the medieval Middle East-we encounter him impersonating a preacher, pretending to be blind, and lying to a judge. In every escapade he shows himself to be a brilliant and persuasive wordsmith, composing poetry, palindromes, and riddles on the spot. Award-winning translator Michael Cooperson transforms Arabic wordplay into English wordplay of his own, using fifty different registers of English, from the distinctive literary styles of authors such as Geoffrey Chaucer, Mark Twain, and Virginia Woolf, to global varieties of English including Cockney rhyming slang, Nigerian English, and Singaporean English.

I’ve barely begun exploring it, but it’s absolutely delightful; here’s the start of Imposture 40, “Iran go Brágh”:

Arthur O’Hannan reported:

I was just after puttin’ it before me to ride the breeze out of Tabroís. ‘Twas no place for a spalpeen, let alone a lord, for there wasn’t a soft heart or an open hand in it. So ’twas cuttin’ me stick I was, and lookin’ for fellows to travel the road with, when who should I meet but Buséad of Searúg and he wrapped in a coat amidst a women’s prashameen. “How are you getting on?” I asked. “And where are you going, with all your care?

He pointed to one of the ladies. With her pookeen drawn back from her face she was as fair as May, but she was looking scunnered and no mistake.

“I married herself,” says he, “for to wash off the clat of lonesomeness and comfort me on the shaughraun, but from that day out ’tis nothing with her but the heart-scald. When it comes to me rights, she puts the pot in the tailor’s link, and I to thole more than a body can bear. Now the breath is barely in and out of me, just enough to sing the ullagone. So we’re a-kempin’ to the Brehon to ask him to show Murrogh to the one in the wrong. If he sets things right between us, well and good; otherwise, the divorce it is, and many a dry eye after!”

I will never be in a position to judge to what degree that’s an accurate rendition of the Arabic, and frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn. It’s pure pleasure to read.

Varia III.

Some interesting stuff I’ve run across:

1) The Un-X-able Y-ness of Z-ing (Q): A List with Notes: Sean Cotter reports on a translated title that “like a spot of dye, dropped into the flow of culture and altered the hue of English as it diffused downstream.” I had not realized that Milan Kundera didn’t want to use “the unbearable lightness of being” as the title of the English translation of his Nesnesitelná lehkost bytí; he told Michael Heim, the translator, that “for you Americans the title will be a bit hard-going.” Heim said, “We’re not children. If The Unbearable Lightness of Being is the title, so be it.” And a meme was born.

2 De Vulgari Eloquentia: Not Dante, but a board game based on Dante (Suggested Ages: 14 and up; Playing Time: 120 minutes):

Italy, late Middle Ages. The fabric merchants need to write down their contracts in a language that everyone can understand and the literates are looking for an alternative to the elite of the traditional Latin language. So, the Volgare, the language spoken by the common people, taken from the dialects spoken in the various Italian regions, starts to gain relevance. … The players will have to do their part in the creation of this new language! But who will provide them the proper knowledge to understand the manuscripts in the different dialects? Who will succeed to uncover the secrets of the books inside the Papal Library? Who will embrace the religious life and who will remain a merchant? Some of the players can become a famous banker, someone else can climb the church’s hierarchy to be the next Pope! But in the end, who will be the most appreciated and respected for his status and his culture?

3) The Space between Languages is a talk by Herta Müller, a writer born to a German-speaking family in the Banat region of Romania who “learnt Romanian quite late in life, when I left my small village for the city at the age of fifteen to go to high school.” The discussion of her relationship to that language is interesting (“There is not a single Romanian sentence in any of my books. But Romanian is always with me when I write because it has grown into my way of seeing the world”), but the main reason I’m bringing it here is to correct an irritating error. She writes:

A swallow suddenly appeared in a different light in Romanian, where it is called rindunica, “sitting-in-a-row”. The bird’s name suggests how swallows perch on a wire, close together in a row. I used to see them in my village every summer, before I knew the Romanian word. I was amazed that a swallow could have such a lovely name. I became more and more aware that the Romanian language had words that were more sensuous, more in tune with my perception, than my mother tongue.

No. The Romanian word rândunea or rândunica ‘swallow’ is not from rând ‘file, row,’ it is from hirundinella, a diminutive of Latin hirundo. I hate to burst such a poetic, sensuous balloon, but there it is.

4) The ever-readable Gasan Guseinov has a brief post saying that all those who use the blatantly foreign бабуин for ‘baboon’ instead of the good Russian word павиан (which, as of course Guseinov knows perfectly well, is borrowed from German Pavian, which ultimately goes back to the same source, French babouin, as бабуин) should be made to repeat the palindrome А НИ У БАБУИНА НИ У БАБУИНА (something like ‘and neither at the baboon nor at the baboon’). I note that Wikipedia has separate articles for бабуин and павиан. Can my Russian-speaking readers tell me whether these two words are distinguished in ordinary use, and which of them is commoner?