Monday, 27 July 2009

Do Geese see God?

Those who dislike seeing graffiti today may be heartened to know that even the ancient Romans suffered from rogue graffiti artists. While excavating the ancient town of Herculaneum in 1738, archaeologists discovered graffiti in the form of the Sator Square, dated to approximately 79 AD, and the earliest palindrome known to be recorded. Rather than a simple ‘Arepo woz ere’, the Sator square arranged the words ‘Sator Arepo Tenet Opera Rotas’ into a square, which read the same in all four different directions. There are so many possible translations of the text that its meaning remains ambiguous, from anything such as ‘Arepo, the sower, guides the wheels with care’ to speculations of an underlying religious message with ‘the Creator holds the working of the spheres in his hands’. Either way, the Sator Square demonstrates that language patterns and palindromes have long fascinated humans.

Chambers 21st Century Dictionary defines a palindrome as “a word or phrase that reads the same backwards and forwards” and quips that the first ever palindrome to be uttered may have been ‘Madam, I’m Adam’. What Eve would have responded is anyone’s guess, although of course her name alone is palindromic. Readers called Anna, Hannah, Bob, Elle or Viv will know the joys of having such a name, while the actor Robert Trebor actually changed his surname from Schenkman just to enjoy the phenomenon.

It is often proclaimed that the longest single-word English palindrome is tattarrattat, used by James Joyce in Ulysses to describe a knock at the door, yet other contenders include detartrated, a contrived chemical term to describe the removal of tartrates, and kinnikinnik, a mixture used by Native Americans as a substitute for tobacco. However, these words have been criticized for being completely fabricated or almost never used. The Chambers Dictionary lists two slightly more useful nine-letter palindromes, Malayalam, “the Dravidian language of Kerala in SW India”, and the trademark Rotavator®, defined as “a motor-powered, hand-operated soil-tilling machine”. The Finnish language is rife with long single-word palindromes, such as saippuakivikauppias, denoting a soap stone dealer, and solutomaattimittaamotulos, which apparently translates as “the result from a measurement laboratory for tomatoes.” Yet while we might borrow some words from the Finnish from time to time, I’m not too convinced that either of those will be entering the English language any time soon.

Perhaps the most popular form of palindrome is the multi-word expression. 1948 saw the popularization of ‘A man, a plan, a canal: Panama!’, attributed to Leigh Mercer, while other historically relevant palindromes include ‘Able was I ere I saw Elba’, purportedly spoken by Napoleon on his first sighting of the island Elba, to which he was exiled in 1814. Personally, my favourite use of palindromic expressions is this song, a parody of Bob Dylan’s ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’, made up entirely of palindromes. Any song that gets away with asking “May a moody baby doom a yam?” is ok by me.

Deborah Smith

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