A palindrome is a word, sentence, or number that reads the same backward or forward. It derives from the Greek palindromos (palin is “again, back” and dromos, “running”), suggesting the palindrome “runs back” on itself. Most credit author Henry Peacham for introducing the word palindrome into English in 1638.
Palindromes are quite common in English, especially three letter ones: mom, dad, pop, did, tot, bib, ere – to name only a few. 5-letter or longer palindrome words are less common: kayak, rotator, level, racecar, deified.
Numbers and dates can be palindromes as well. February 20, 2022 – or 2202022 – spawned memes on social media. I don’t remember seeing similar interest on January 20, 2021 (1202021).
At 12 letters, the longest palindrome word in English is usually considered tattarrattat, coined by James Joyce in his 1922 Ulysses to imitate the sound of a knock on the door. Amusingly, tattarrattat is also an onomatopoeia, meaning it’s a word which sounds just like what it describes. At 19 letters, the Guinness Book of World Records lists the Finnish word saippuakivikauppias as the longest single-word palindrome. Saippuakivikauppias translates to “a traveling salesman who sells lye or caustic soda” but does not appear to be in common use.
Phrases and sentences can also be palindromes. “Madam, I’m Adam” is a classic palindrome phrase which is supposedly what Biblical Adam said when he first met Eve. For fun, we can pretend her response was “Sir, I’m Iris” or, assuming she changed her name, “Sir, I demand, I am a maid named Iris.”
It’s fairly easy to construct these phrases, especially since you don’t need to worry about punctuation. Self-described master palindromist Barry Duncan routinely creates palindrome paragraphs which are hundreds of words long. At an astonishing 200 pages and 30K+ words, the novel Dr Awkward & Olson in Oslo is one giant palindrome and likely the longest ever created.
In addition to length, it can be fun to tie palindromes to a specific situation.
What did Napoléon say after he surrendered on the Island of Elba:
“Able was I ere I saw Elba.”
A discussion between two people about which animal broke a vase:
“Was it a cat I saw?”
“No, Dog, as a devil deified, lived as a god.”
A bit obscure but, if you’re into words, it’s amusing.
There’s one more palindrome you should know about. Aibohphobia refers to an “irrational fear of palindromes.” It’s a palindrome itself – with the word phobia spelled backwards and forwards.
That’s fun with palindromes. No need to have aibohphobia.