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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Final Jeopardy for James Holzhauer

Alas, all great runs must come to an end, and so it is with a heavy heart that I report that James Holzhauer — sports gambler, trivia whiz, and Jeopardy! champion — has been defeated, relinquishing his title as champion after 32 days.

He amassed an impressive total of $2,464,216, the second highest in game history during regular-season play. And his impressive daily totals have yielded some impressive stats. He now holds 21 of the top 25 spots on the show’s list of the highest single-day winnings.

Only $58,484 separated him from Ken Jennings’ long-standing total of $2,520,700, which was amassed in 74 games back in 2004.

holzhauertweet

Holzhauer was complimentary toward both Jennings and his Jeopardy! opponent Emma Boettcher on social media, stating, “CONGRATULATIONS to Emma on a world-beating performance. There’s no greater honor than knowing an opponent had to play a perfect game to defeat me.”

He then cited one of the predictions as to how his reign would end, quoting, “James will eventually beat himself by flubbing one of his big bets,” before responding, “Nope, James got his ass kicked straight up by an elite player who nailed her own big bets.”

Naturally, the buzz around social media regarding this unexpected turn of events is mixed. Some viewers are glad to see a new champion crowned, while others are sad to see Holzhauer go.

There are also a few conspiracy theories brewing. Some viewers believe that James intentionally threw this match, citing slower reaction times, gimme questions being missed, and a general lack of energy from the normally bullish champion. He went into Final Jeopardy in second place.

The capper for many was his performance in Final Jeopardy where he made an uncharacteristically low wager (only $1300 or so, when he was at $23k), meaning that despite his correct answer, he wouldn’t defeat his rival for this game. (Emma Boettcher, on the other hand, bet $20k on Final Jeopardy, perhaps anticipating a similarly aggressive bet from Holzhauer.)

But Holzhauer has already explained his unexpected move, telling The Atlantic that, “By the time Final Jeopardy rolled around I knew my goose was cooked if Emma answered correctly. It’s a little like needing a team to miss a last-second field goal ― nothing you can really do but watch. I made peace with my fate before the clue for Final was even revealed.”

Holzhauer seems pleased with his Jeopardy! performance despite not dethroning Jennings. “My only real goals were: Win $110,914 on an episode to honor my daughter’s birthday, and play my absolute best every game. I achieved both, and I’m very proud of myself for that.”

Congratulations to James Holzhauer for a very notable run as champion, and congratulations to Emma Boettcher for proving to be a more than worthy champion in her own right.

And now, there’s really only one way to conclude a saga like this, and that’s with a song. Take it, “Weird Al”…


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The New York Times Crossword, Accordion to Weird Al

 In February of 2017, The New York Times celebrated a landmark in the history of puzzles: the 75th anniversary of the NYT crossword.

And ever since, to commemorate that puzzly milestone, top constructors and Times favorites have been pairing up with celebrity fans and puzzle enthusiasts to co-construct puzzles for the Times!

This year, you might’ve encountered some of these collaborations, like news pundit Rachel Maddow’s March 2nd puzzle with constructor Joe DiPietro, or “How I Met Your Mother” star Josh Radner’s meditation-themed puzzler from January 31st with constructor Jeff Chen.

Over the last year, names as diverse as John Lithgow, Elayne Boosler, Joy Behar, Mike Selinker, Lisa Loeb, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Bill Clinton have contributed their puzzly efforts to this marvelous project.

And yesterday, another famous wordsmith and master of punnery made his New York Times debut.

[Image courtesy of Instagram.]

Yes, the immortal “Weird Al” Yankovic teamed up with Puzzle Your Kids mastermind and friend of the blog Eric Berlin for a cheese-themed Wednesday outing that delighted fans and solvers alike.

Al has certainly been keeping busy lately, launching his Ridiculously Self-Indulgent, Ill-Advised Vanity Tour — his words, not mine; I loved the show I attended! — and working with Lin-Manuel Miranda to create The Hamilton Polka, an ambitious and hilarious take on the wildly successful musical.

The puzzle was Eric’s 40th Times puzzle, and Al’s first. Not only did the puzzle feature those signature cinematic cheese puns — like A FEW GOUDA MEN and THE PELICAN BRIE — but there was plenty of nerd culture featured in the fill and cluing.

Tom Lehrer and John Cleese were both name-dropped, as well as Legolas, Wile E. Coyote, WALL-E, Mr. Clean, and Bones from the original Star Trek.

Eric offered some insight into the puzzle’s creation while discussing the puzzle with Wordplay’s Deb Amlen:

My very first attempt at the grid included one of my favorites from his list, QUESOBLANCA. I was under the misapprehension that queso is not just the Spanish word for cheese but also a specific kind of cheese. Whoops, not quite. (This was entirely on me, I should note — Al, not knowing during his brainstorming that the end result would be restricted to specific cheeses, had several cheese-adjacent puns in his list, including FONDUE THE RIGHT THING and CHEESY RIDER.)

And appropriately enough, Al had a bit of fun promoting the puzzle on his Instagram, claiming, “If you’re REALLY good, you don’t NEED the clues!”

For the record, I needed the clues.


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