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!


  1. Here’s the beginning of a 2005 article about conlanging, including parts of an interview with me:
    “John Cowan has written a 620-page grammar book for a language that does not exist. He is a master of Lojban, a perfectly logical language invented by a small group of people who want to remove all ambiguity from communication.”
    Not all ambiguity, of course; only phonological and morphosyntactic ambiguity. Semantic ambiguity isn’t going anywhere.
    If you want to read the rest, pony up US$4.00 for the hard copy; it’s not on line.

  2. Sorry, I forgot to mention that the point of that posting was that the article also appeared in The Believer.

  3. Since it’s a magazine, it can’t just link to A Greenward Palindrome.

  4. “Duncan would send the collection to people he knew and simply never hear from them again.”
    Funnily enough, I can sort of relate to this.

  5. Paul Klee could write equally well, backwards and forwards, with both hands. Taking a pen in each hand he was able to write a sentence working outwards from the middle – simultaneously writing the beginning half backwards with his left hand while he wrote the second half with his right, in other words. It may have helped that his eyes were so widely spaced.

  6. He’s not updating any more, but Palindramas was lots of fun:

  7. I would like to suggest a neologism: “palindrone”. This is a person who speaks on and on, but has so little of significance to say that he/she could just as well speak backwards and you wouldn’t miss a thing.
    Like Sarah Palin, actually.

  8. Nilapha Ras.

  9. In fact, there’s already a good neologism derived from ‘palindrome’– an ’emordnilap’ is a word that means something different when spelled backwards.

  10. Paul Klee could write equally well, backwards and forwards, with both hands
    My father was born left-handed but forced to use his right. That was way back in the early part of the last century. Always somewhat ambidextrous — and probably somewhat dyslexic too — he was able to write a sentence “normally” with his left hand and do a pretty good job of mirror-writing the same sentence with his right. He could do the same with simple drawings.

  11. Oops. Make that “write a sentence ‘normally’ with his right hand . . . same sentence with his left.”

  12. John Emerson says

    President Garfield was ambidextrous (pprobably born left-handed) and could write Latin with one hand while he wrote Greek with the other.
    Off topic:
    Guiteau, who killed Garfield, may have been crazy but he had a political motive. He was a Stalwart,a member of a Republican faction known partly for its moderation compared to the Radical Republicans, but mostly for its corruption. Garfield was was a supporter of civil service reform and thus an enemy of the Stalwarts. Chester Arthur signed the ensuing reform bill, even though he had not been a supporter before.

  13. John Emerson says

    Not quite right. The Stalwarts were allied to the Radical Republicans and the opposing reform faction was called the Half-Breeds. Guiteau ruined the Stalwart brand.

  14. What he certainly was not was an anarchist, and anarchists of the day rightly called him an agent provocateur. You don’t get much more provocative than by assassinating a U.S. President.

  15. komfo,amonan says

    @Paul Ogden: My father, in the thirties, had a slightly different experience. He was left-handed, they tried to make him write right-handed. He came home crying every day until his mother went to the school and lowered the boom on them, and that was that. As it turned out, my father had execrable handwriting. He also printed his lowercase y’s backward.
    And I wish I had known my grandmother. The little I’ve heard about her make her seem formidable.

  16. Do you think he might have been dyslexic?

  17. I just ran across this passage in Pushkin’s История села Горюхина [History of the village of Goryukhin]:

    Летописи упоминают о земском Терентии, жившем около 1767 году, умевшем писать не только правой, но и левою рукою. Сей необыкновенный человек прославился в околодке сочинением всякого роду писем, челобитьев, партикулярных пашпортов и т. под. Неоднократно пострадав за свое искусство, услужливость и участие в разных замечательных происшедствиях, он умер уже в глубокой старости, в то самое время, как приучался писать правою ногою, ибо почерка обеих рук его были уже слишком известны.

    [The chronicles tell of the village clerk Terenty, who lived around 1767 and was able to write not only with his right hand but also with his left. This uncommon personage was celebrated in the locality for his composition of every variety of letter, petition, civil passport, and the like. Having more than once suffered for his art, complaisance, and participation in sundry remarkable events, he died in extreme old age at the very time when he was training himself to write with his right foot, for his handwriting with both hands had become too well known.]

    There’s a lesson there for all of us, and perhaps more than one.

  18. how to get rid of double chin says

    I don’t have any idea before about PALINDROMIST. But this post gives me more insight & learning about this topic. Thanks a lot!

  19. for his handwriting with both hands had become too well known.
    I’d forgotten, and I’m not sure this practice even goes on any more, but they used to say that (right-handed) forgers of handwriting used their left hand when doing the forging; it avoided unintentionally adding the forger’s own handwriting mannerisms to their handiwork. God kno if this is true.

  20. Having more than once suffered for his art, complaisance, and participation in sundry remarkable events
    What kind of sufferings ?

  21. Alas, we’ll never know; Pushkin didn’t finish the story.

  22. Perhaps the story went like this: he had occasionally consented to forge documents for people, and then became conscience-stricken, or got caught out. So “in extreme old age” he was trying to change his handwriting. i.e. to forge a new identity that couldn’t be traced back to the old one.

  23. John Emerson says

    Musorgsky was a scribe by trade, which helped him remain wretchedly poor. In Khovanshchina a scribe plays a significant role, representing (according to me) both Musorgsky himself and the helpless Russian intelligentsia, which at that time could really only watch while things happened. (That was M’s opinion of the intelligentsia’s situation then, anyway.) At one point in the opera the scribe is hired to write an anonymous letter which could get the author of the letter executed, and the scribe is terrified of the consequences for himself if his hand were to be recognized.

  24. The NPR radio show “Here and Now” did a story on this Monday.
    I’m a little puzzled by all this publicity, because (speaking as the editor of The Palindromist magazine), Duncan has never been a particularly notable palindromist. Jon Agee (“Go Hang A Salami, I’m a Lasagna Hog“), John Connett (“Eva, can I stack Rod’s sad-ass, dork cats in a cave?”) and Demitri Martin (with a 500-word palindrome in his new book that’s clearly superior to anything Duncan has done) are just three I’d rate ahead of him.
    Yet Duncan has the Believer article plus a film documentary on him in the works. Maybe because those others are successful, well-adjusted and lucky in love, so they don’t fit the “geek loser” meme that seems to be in play here.

  25. Well, success is a whore, and well-adjusted is a matter of opinion, but I’ve definitely been lucky in love (and have avoided dice/cards). Geek, yes; loser, no.

  26. marie-lucie says

    PO: My father was born left-handed but forced to use his right.

    I was born left-handed but became right-handed at school. I don’t remember the switch as traumatic, so I probably had only a slight preference for the left hand. I am not left-handed or ambidextrous but in general my left hand is better than that of most right-handers.

    My mother was a kindergarten-grade one teacher and used to tell the left-handers: “Start writing with your right hand, you can switch to your left hand when you get tired. But first try your right hand”. Other teachers were not so permissive.

  27. marie-lucie: my dad went to Catholic elementary school in the 1940s, and the nuns would slap his hand with a ruler if he wrote left-handed, because it was “the hand of the devil.”

    He wasn’t even Catholic, but he married a Catholic lady and became ambidextrous, which helped him in baseball.

    As for geeks, this blog recently posted an article I wrote on the code-breakers at Bletchley Park in England during WW2 (featured in The Imitation Game.) That group were clearly geeks but also very well-rounded; Alan Turing placed 5th in the 1948 Olympic Trails in the marathon, Shaun Wylie played on Scotland’s international hockey team, and Peter Benenson went on to form Amnesty Interntional. They often staged plays and musical revues, which were highly regarded, and Donald Michie put together the “Balliol Book of Bawdy Verse.”

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