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How to construct palindromes

A palindrome is a word or phrase that reads the same way forwards and backwards, like kayak or Madam, I’m Adam. The word comes to us from palindromos, made up of a pair of Greek roots: palin (meaning “again”) and dromos (meaning “way, direction”). It occurs in English as early as the seventeenth century, when the poet and playwright Ben Jonson referred to “curious palindromes.”

Some palindromes, the simplest sort, are reversible words, often with a consonant-vowel-consonant vowel-consonant (or CVCVC) spelling, like civic, level, dewed, radar, refer, rotor, and tenet. Shorter palindromes are common too, like pup, mom, and wow. Longer ones include racecar and rotator. 

The alternating consonant-vowel shapes is convenient but not necessary, and palindromes like noon, deed, boob, (with a CVVC shape), deified and reifier (with a CVVCVVC shape), and redder (with a CVCCVC shape) exist as well. If you ignore the hyphen between its parts, the CVCCVC compound pull-up works as well.

Some fans of this sort of wordplay insist that true palindromes must spell the same word in both directions, so live and evil, dessert and tressed, and era and are would not count as true palindromes. When words can be reversed but the meaning changes, they are sometimes called heteropalindromes. I’m not that fussy though. They are all palindromes to me.

To understand how to make palindromes, it helps to think about the combinations that can begin and end words. English syllables can begin with a single consonant letter or end with letter clusters like thw, dw, tw, thr, dr, tr, kw, qu, cr, kr, kn, cl, kl, pr, fr, br, gr, pl, ph, fl, bl, and gl, as in thwart, dwindle, tweet, through, dream, train, kwanza, queen, creek, kraut, know, pring, fret, brew, gray, play, phone, fly, and glow.   But many of these clusters don’t occur in reverse at the end of words.  At the end of words, we find wd, wt, rd, rt, rc, rk, lc, lk, rp, rf, rb, rg, pl, lf, and lb, as in lewd, newt, bard, cart, arc, talc, walk, carp, arf, verb, berg, kelp, calf, and bulb.  Of these, the reversible combinations are few: dr, tr, cr, kr, pr, br, gr, pl, and fl: ward/draw, bard/drab, trap/part, marc/cram, knob/bonk, prep/perp, brag/garb, grub/burg, plug/gulp, flow/wolf, flog/golf. 

The suffixes –s and –ed are especially helpful, since they can create plural and possessive nouns and present and past tense verbs.  The letter s is also very common in two- and three-letter consonant clusters at the beginning of a word:  sleep/peels, spin/nips, stab/bats, stub/buts, snub/buns, straw/warts, and slip-up/pupils.  And the syllable de- can also occur at the beginning of words: denim/mined, devil/lived, debut/tubed, decaf/faced, decal/laced, demit/timed, and desuffused. 

Beyond being reversible themselves, words can be combined to make palindromic phrases and even sentence-long palindromes, from simple ones like “No, son,” and “Sue us” to longer sentences like “Do geese see God?” or “Step on no pets.” The strategic use of a semicolon gives us the compound sentence “Deliver no evil; live on reviled.” It is even possible to create a palindrome that goes on forever. How? If you embed the word ever into the palindrome never even you can get never ever even, never ever ever even, and so on to infinity.

Making palindromes is something of an art form. Phrases and sentences are often poetical rather than strictly grammatical. And they sometimes work best when combined with illustrations, as in John Agee’s books Go Hang a Salami! I’m a Lasagna Hog and So Many Dynamos!, which offer up such entertaining combinations as Llama mall, Dr. Awkward, or Mr. Alarm.

If you want to try to create some palindromes yourself, here are some tips:

Start with a list of reversible words. In addition to the words already given there are pairs like: room/moor, edit/tide doom/mood, time/emit, avid/diva, bad/dab, rail/liar, raj/jar and many more.

Reversible names like Ada, Bob, Viv, Eve, Anna, Hannah, and Mada/Adam, can be a good way to begin or end a palindrome.

Palindromists don’t worry much about punctuation, so gateman’s nametag and bro’s orb will count.

There are some common palindrome frames you can use to practice with, like the ones below, adapted from Howard Bergerson’s 1973 book, Palindromes and Anagrams.

“Was it a ___ I saw?”

You need a word that ends in –at.

“I saw _______; ______ was I.”

The first blank is a plural noun.

“_____ not on _____”

Since not on is itself reversible, all you need is a reversible word that makes sense.  Look for a verb that reverses as a noun.

“Ma is as_____________ as I am.”

Ma is as reversed gives plus as I am, so you’re a looking for a word that begins with an s to fill in the blank.

“______ if I _______.”

Look for a verb that is a palindrome.

How did you do?  Did you come up with these or similar correct answers?

“Was it a rat I saw?”

“I saw desserts; stressed was I.”

“Live not on evil.”

“Ma is as selfless as I am.”

“Pull up if I pull up.”

Until next month, mix a maxim.

Featured image: “Red Bull Formula 1” by Hanson Lu. Public domain via Unsplash.

Recent Comments

  1. […] continue reading . . . […]

  2. Henri Wetselaar

    What do you call two words that have exact opposite meanings.
    Namely: United untied.
    We’ searched for years to see if we can find another two words

  3. Henri Wetselaar

    Thank you for the palindrome article

  4. Leonard Sellers

    Since it’s near your university, how about “Yreka Bakery”?

  5. […] Have you seen the film The Imitation Game? It turns out those World War II code breakers also mastered the art of the palindrome. This article includes what is possibly the best-ever palindrome in English. (And Oxford Dictionaries recently wrote a blog post on how to make palindromes). […]

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