The Ins and Outs of Back and Forth
By Michael Abrams
Like all great artists, the successful palindromist is besieged by the same few questions from friends, fans, critics and hangers-on. Where do you get your ideas? How do you make a palindrome? What are your influences? How did you get interested palindromes? Is that supposed to mean something? Why are you bothering me?
Laymen often assume that the palindromist chooses a topic and then suddenly an entire symmetrical phrase emerges from his subconscious, as spontaneous and complete as a Charlie Parker solo. Sadly, like so many seeming works of genius, the palindrome is the result of determination, sweat, hard work, lots of time, and an idiotic stubbornness. The grunt work of palindroming, the endless flopping of syllables, the grueling hours spent listing words ending in h, the drudgery of reading dictionaries backward, the real blood-and-guts, in-the-dirt-with-a-shovel-and-a-screen work is a lot more like archeology than art.
The fact is, palindromes are out there in the language, waiting to be dug up. Any wordsmith that starts playing around with the word snore during a sleepless night next to some roaring relative will eventually begin to wonder what words end with erons. It won't be long before herons comes to mind and voila! there's a palindrome: Snore herons.
It's true that there are other things that can be done with herons. Snore doesn't have to come first, but that means finding a word beginning with an h, whose remaining letters must spell something backward. Ham is such a word. And so we find ourselves with the exquisite "Ma, herons snore ham." Though more complex, this too is one of a finite number of herons palindromes. The number of h words that contain another word resting in their posteriors is few. The number of four-word palindromes with "herons snore" as their center could easily be listed on this page. If the palindromist is an artist at all, he's like Michelangelo chiseling at a block of stone to find the human body he already knows is inside.
The above scenario-a sleepless night next to bleating kin-is not a fiction. The event occured early in my palindroming career. I was so delighted with the "Snore herons" that I told everyone about it in the morning. But shortly thereafter I was reading Richard Lederer's Word Circus (in the conventional direction) when I happened upon "Snore herons" in a list of palindromic animals. The pearl of wisdom gleaned from this experience was well worth my disapointment. Palindromes belong to the world, not the individual, and they are continually rediscovered. Imagine my joy when I pried the complete sentence-a rarity among palindromes-"Nate bit a Tibetan" out of the language. Since then I've found it in two other palindrome books.
Sadly, even the best palindromes fail to excite some people. You can imagine that if "Nate bit a Tibetan" sometimes gets a blank stare, "Ma, herons snore ham" can inspire undisguised disgust. The innocent passerby, caught off-guard by an insistent, excited palindromist, can't be expected to understand or appreciate the beauty of such a phrase. The truth is, finding a palindrome is in most cases far more fun than being assaulted with one. If you've spent hours toying with the word "snore" you're bound to be more interested in what it could mean to "snore ham" than those who have spent their time following other pursuits. And so, instead of just perusing the palindromes I and others have excavated from the earth that is the English language, try to build your own. Like any true gourmand, you'll better apreciate the meal when you can recognize the ingredients.
The Elements of a Palindrome
Palindromes are usually built around the kernel of a promising word. Once this initial, inspirational word has been reversed, other words can be added either between the word and its reversal or to either end of the pair. Building on the outside is often the easiest way to proceed. Say we need a palindrome in which a dog is to be ordered around. We might start with "dog, go d. . ." Then we'll need to find a useful word that starts with d. If we use deeper, we're left with ". . . re pee dog, go deeper," which calls out for a good word ending with re. If we then choose fire the outcome is "Fire pee dog, go deeper if." This begs for more words but there are no longer any hanging letters. Now any pair of words that are complete reversals of one another can bracket the palindrome to finish it off. "Live fire! Pee dog, go deeper if evil" ends the affair, though perhaps not as elegantly as one would have hoped.
Other palindromes can grow from the inside. If we start with "Go dog" we can add to the center by finding an appropriate word that starts with a d. "Go do dog" could put an end to the process with the o in do acting as the center. If we want to further expand it we could add Dana and look for a word that ends with ana (though "Go, Dana Dog" is a complete palindrome). Man a gives us "Go, Dana, man a dog." With a tolerable m word we could expand the palindrome indefinitely.
Each word in a palindrome has a role: Beginning or ending the palindrome; linking words together; acting as or contributing to the center of the palindrome.
First there are palindromic words-words that are the same forward and backward: Noon, Kayak, Bob.
Then there are the semordnilaps-words that are a different word (or couple of words) backward: dog/god, rats/star, evian/naive.
Words with internal symmetry contain a symmetrical section at the beginning or end. This section is most likely to end up as the center of a palindrome: sordid ("Flee sordid rose, elf?"), peeped (Kay, a red nude, peeped under a yak), llama (the ll in "Ma, I am a llama, I am." Unfortunately, the ama isn't of much use unless you can think of another word that starts with two Ls.).
When the first or last letter of a word is the center of a palindrome this letter is called the pivotal letter.
Embedded symmetries, symmetrical sections surrounded by different letters on either side, are useless. Staccato might be made into a palindrome (only if A.C. can stand for air conditioning or TAC for Tactical Air Command) but the acca will never be the center.
Linking words are simply redivided on their way back. Their letters are parts of other words on the other half of the palindrome: plan in Lee Mercer's classic "A man, a plan, a canal: Panama"; Cerusite in "You bet I sure can omit Tim on a cerusite buoy."
Astragal words contain another word (or two) backward at one end but need to be attached to another word with their remaining letters. These words are particularly useful when trying to finish a palindrome built from theinside out. If you catch a palindromist mumbling "I need a word that ends with rt where the rest of the letters spell something backward" chances are he's looking for an astragal word: Panama contains "a man" at the end, but the ap needs to be attached to something new ("a plan" in the old chestnut, but ape could work as well: "A man ape: Panama"); Melon in "No lemons, no melon."
Many words have different functions in different situations, sometimes more than one function in a single situation. Madam, for instanace, is a palindrome all by itself. But in "Madam, in Eden I'm Adam," it opperates as an Astragal word.
Palindromes are either even or odd-a small but important distinction. In even palindromes every letter is used twice. The middle occurs between letters, often between words. "Reign at Tangier" (by Joaquin and Maura Kuhn) is a good example. Such a palindrome is essentially two long semordnilaps. Since they can be halved without splitting a word it's easy to extend them by adding to their middles. "Reign at Tangier" becomes "Reign at nine men in Tangier." Now it's an odd palindrome-with the m as the pivotal letter-and not as easily expandable. Palindromes with the center in the middle of a word, can also be built the inside but it's a bit harder. There's not much to add to the interior of "I'm a boob, am I?" (Well, I guess there's always "I'm a bonk knob, am I?")
A perfect palindrome is a palindrome made up entirely of semordnilaps: "Able was I ere I saw Elba."
The following puzzles are easier than they might first seem. In many ways they are like cartoon rebuses: Every word is somehow clued in the image. Try to isolate elements from the text (actions, things, sometimes words) to find words that will fit into the dashes. Every letter you figure out can be used on the opposite side as well (so be sure to first find the center of the palindrome). Then you can work back and forth between the two sides. A single right word will give the whole palindrome away.
Find the title of this poem:
___ ____ ______
We're cheated with just one nose on the face
We want more noses all over the place!
The one we've got, yeah sure, it smells a lot
But one on the forehead could smell out a thought
one on a knee for sniffing at dogs
one on a shin for wading through bogs
One on the rear for smelling our seat
One on a foot for smelling, well, feet
One in the hair for smelling shampoo
One in the cupboard for sniffing some glue
One in a pit for smelling B.O.
And one on the chest: That's just for show
I'd do more than smell dozens of roses
If I'd been equipped with nine extra noses
Bob was a couch potato. Every day he came home from the factory, plopped himself down on the sofa, turned on the TV and popped open a brew. There was nothing he enjoyed more than drinking his favorite Canadian beer while watching a football game. In fact, that's about all he did. Work, sleep, football and beer. Drinking was only thing that ever distracted him from the tube. When he did happen to miss an interception or 40-yard-dash due to such a sip, there was always the instant replay to fill him in.
Every year Bob's wife and son would have a terrible time trying to think of what to buy him for his birthday. They tried getting him expensive, micro-brewed beer, but that didn't interest him. They'd bought him a subscription to Sports Illustrated but he didn't want to take any time away from watching football to read it.
One year they had a brilliant idea. Why not buy him tickets to go see a real football game-live, at the stadium? So Bob's wife and son picked him up after work on his birthday and drove him to a game. Bob was happy when he first saw the stadium and more than eager to settle into his seat. As the game wore on, however, Bob became more and more frustrated. The only beer they served at the stadium was Budweiser and every time he looked around, hoping to see a vendor selling his beer he missed a crowd-roaring play. By the end of the first quarter Bob was ready to leave. He stood up in a huff, ready to go.
"What's wrong, Bob?" asked his wife.
"__ ___-__, __ ______," complained Bob.