The Search for the Greatest Palindrome

[Palindrome, written as an ambigram.]

Palindromes are a classic — and challenging — form of wordplay. Essentially, you’re trying to come up with phrases or entire sentences that read the same backwards and forwards.

Although palindromes have been around for a very long time — dating back to magic squares — they’ve gained additional prominence in recent years. The 2017 World Palindrome Championship was determined alongside the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament the same year. They have their own awards ceremony: The SymmyS Awards. There was even a documentary on the subject.

Palindrome creation was a popular pastime in Bletchley Park during the off-time of the codebreakers and staff. And those palindromic magic squares we referenced earlier? It was once believed that they held magical properties and served as incantations to ward off threats both spiritual and physical.

Musician, parodist, and wordsmith “Weird Al” Yankovic, no stranger to palindromes himself, once said that “the writing of a brilliant palindrome is a small miracle, and that, I think, deserves to be honored more than a lot of the stupid and inconsequential things we often celebrate in our culture.”

They’re an integral part of puzzle history.

But why do I have palindromes on the brain today? Because I’ve been trying to figure out which one is the best one ever created.

It’s a tricky topic, extremely subjective. What parameters do I use to choose the palindrome in the top spot?

The most famous one is either “Madam, I’m Adam” or “a man, a plan, a canal… Panama!”

I prefer the latter. It’s not just thematically appropriate to its subject, but it’s also a univocalic, a sentence using only one vowel. There’s a lot of linguistic legerdemain going on here.

It has been expanded upon, of course. I’ve seen this wordier version around:

A man, a plan, a canoe, pasta, heros, rajahs, a coloratura, maps, snipe, percale, macaroni, a gag, a banana bag, a tan, a tag, a banana bag again (or a camel), a crepe, pins, Spam, a rut, a Rolo, cash, a jar, sore hats, a peon, a canal — Panama!

Do I go by sheer length? Some palindromes are incredibly long, but are mostly nonsense.

My friend Troy recently shared this lengthy palindrome with me:

Dennis, Nell, Edna, Leon, Nedra, Anita, Rolf, Nora, Alice, Carol, Leo, Jane, Reed, Dena, Dale, Basil, Rae, Penny, Lana, Dave, Denny, Lena, Ida, Bernadette, Ben, Ray, Lila, Nina, Jo, Ira, Mara, Sara, Mario, Jan, Ina, Lily, Arne, Bette, Dan, Reba, Diane, Lynn, Ed, Eva, Dana, Lynne, Pearl, Isabel, Ada, Ned, Dee, Rena, Joel, Lora, Cecil, Aaron, Flora, Tina, Arden, Noel, and Ellen sinned.

It makes more sense than the Panama one, but just barely. It’s a thinly disguised list, that’s all.

So, is narrative coherence a necessity for the best palindrome ever?

World Champion Palindromist Mark Saltveit claims that his first palindrome was “Resoled in Saratoga, riveting in a wide wale suit, I use law, Ed. I, wan, ignite virago, tar a snide loser.”

It’s lengthy, and it mostly makes sense. But Saltveit rarely worries about that. One of his most famous creations is this borderline nonsensical concoction:

Devil Kay fixes trapeze part; sex if yak lived.

Sure, it manages to use Xs and a Z, but it’s gibberish. I much prefer his winner from the First World Palindrome Championship in 2012:

I tan. I mull. In a way, Obama, I am a boy, a wan Illuminati.

The Bletchley Park palindromists demanded some level of coherence. One of the most impressive produced there was “Doc, note, I dissent. A fast never prevents a fatness. I diet on cod.”

It’s certainly impressive, and feels like it could be spoken casually.

Maybe the ideal palindrome walks the tightrope of cleverness, innovation, length, and coherence.

Although it’s quite short, I do enjoy this existential one from the 2018 SymmyS Awards: “Am I man-made? Damn! Am I, Ma?”

I’ve pored over dozens and dozens of palindromes, trying to find one that best represents the wordplay and the art form. And I’ve made my choice.

In my humble, puzzly opinion as a self-appointed adjudicator of palindromic magnificence, I choose Anthony Etherin’s “The Failed Cartographer” as the best palindrome I’ve ever seen.

Please enjoy this wistful, almost operatic bit of wordplay:

Demand a hill, at solid nadir…. Damn it! One morn I saw I was in Rome,
not in Madrid, and I lost all I had named…

Magical.

Can you think of a palindrome that better epitomizes the genre? Please share in the comments section below. We’d love to hear from you!

Oh, and as for my favorite palindrome? That’s easy. It’s a stupid one I wrote for a friend.

“My friend Sean has a really weird last name: Emantsaldriewyllaerasahnaesdnierfym.”


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DIY Wordplay!

[The word “wordplay” presented as an ambigram, meaning it can be read in more than one direction.]

Wordplay has been an integral part of puzzles since the very beginning. Over the last few years, I’ve written about wordplay in the blog numerous times, whether we’re discussing clever crossword cluing, how rebus and cryptograms hide messages in plain sight, or how palindromes were once used as magical incantations to ward off threats.

I mentioned several forms of wordplay in my Yogi Berra post earlier this year, like mondegreens, Wellerisms, and Spoonerisms, and today I’d like to explore a few more. And none of these require anything more than a creative mind, something to write with, and something to write on.


Palindromes

Palindromes are a classic — and challenging — form of wordplay. Essentially, you’re trying to come up with phrases or entire sentences that read the same backwards and forwards.

Perhaps the most famous palindrome is “a man, a plan, a canal… Panama!” But I suspect it was a game of palindromic one-upsmanship that led to this ambitious expansion:

A man, a plan, a canoe, pasta, heros, rajahs, a coloratura, maps, snipe, percale, macaroni, a gag, a banana bag, a tan, a tag, a banana bag again (or a camel), a crepe, pins, Spam, a rut, a Rolo, cash, a jar, sore hats, a peon, a canal — Panama!

A fun way to make a game of these is to see if you can incorporate a friend’s name into a palindrome. For instance, this one I concocted for a buddy is a particular favorite of mine:

My friend Sean has a really weird last name: Emantsaldriewyllaerasahnaesdnierfym.

Heck, there are even awards now for impressive acts of palindromic wordplay: The SymmyS Awards.


Acronyms

Acronyms are abbreviations where each letter represents a full word in a phrase or sentence, and the acronym is pronounced like its own word. NATO, laser, MoMa, ALF… these are all fairly well-known acronyms.

(Acronyms are often confused with initialisms, where each letter of the abbreviated word is pronounced, like ATM, MVP, and CEO.)

But there’s a simple wordplay game lurking here. Pick a word (or better yet, someone’s name) and see if you can come up with what it means.

For example, if your friend Dwayne enjoys sailing, you might create the acronym “Doesn’t Work, Always Yachting, No Exceptions.”


Portmanteaus

Much like the namesake bag with dual functions, portmanteau words combine two words in one, like smog for “smoke” and “fog” or spork for “fork” and “spoon.”

One game fellow puzzlers and I have played with portmanteaus is describing a situation that has no word to summarize it, then seeing if there’s a portmanteau that can sum it up succinctly and humorously.

(A common variation of this is coming up with one-word names for celebrity couples or fictional pairings in TV shows. Brangelina is perhaps the most famous example.)

Let me give you an example. My friend has started a blog where she reviews the made-for-TV Christmas movies they do on the Hallmark Channel, and she asked for suggestions for what to call the project. So, being the portmanteau enthusiast that I am, I suggested Christmasterpiece Theater.


Tom Swifties

My favorite pun-delivery system by far is the Tom Swifty. You describe a scene or offer a statement, and then use a punny adjective, adverb, or verb to close out the joke. Examples:

  • “I have to keep this fire lit,” Tom bellowed.
  • “I dropped the toothpaste,” said Tom, crestfallen.
  • “I have a BA in social work,” said Tom with a degree of concern.
  • “I used to command a battalion of German ants,” said Tom exuberantly.

Coming up with new ones can be great puzzly fun, or you can create a game by giving someone the quotation and seeing if they can complete the joke, as we did in a live game a while back.


Kangaroo words

How many times have you looked at a word and seen the smaller words spelled out lurking inside it? Plenty, I’d bet. Well, these words are known as kangaroo words (or marsupial words), and finding the words hidden inside can be a puzzly game in itself.

Let’s look at a word like ANATOMICAL. This is definitely a kangaroo word, since you can see ATOM, MIC, and MICA reading out in order, as well as other words like ANT, ANTI, AMI, TOIL, and NAIL reading out by skipping the occasional letter.

Just imagine how many you could find in SUPERCALIFRAGILISTICEXPIALIDOCIOUS!


Anagrams, Aptigrams, and Antigrams

Finally, you can’t have a post about wordplay without talking about anagrams. An anagram rearranges the letters in a word or phrase to make other words or phrases. LEAST anagrams into STEAL, STALE, SLATE, TALES, TESLA, and others, for instance.

But there are more ambitious variations of anagrams out there for enterprising puzzlers to uncover. Two diabolical ones are aptigrams and antigrams.

Aptigrams, as you might expect if you’re a portmanteau pro, are anagrams that are particularly apt descriptions of a given word or phrase.

For instance, CLINT EASTWOOD anagrams into OLD WEST ACTION and ALEC GUINNESS anagrams into GENUINE CLASS. Both are terrific examples of aptigrams. (Friend of the blog Keith Yarbrough conjured up another good one: GEORGE BUSH anagrams into HE BUGS GORE.)

Antigrams can be a bit more challenging, since these anagrams bear the opposite meaning of the original word. FUNERAL, for instance, becomes REAL FUN and ANTAGONIST becomes NOT AGAINST.


What are your favorite forms of wordplay, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers? Let us know and they might become the subject of a future post or puzzle game on the blog!

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