Word-unit palindromes

A strange historical absence

The most common kind of palindrome is one that reads the same when reversing the order of the letters (possibly ignoring whitepace and punctuation). Some famous English examples, dating to the 19th and early 20th centuries:
Madam, I'm Adam
Able was I, ere I saw Elba
A man, a plan, a canal, Panama!

The word-unit (or word-level) palindrome reverses the order of the words, instead of the letters. Nick Montfort's recent hobby is tweeting these kinds of palindromes, things like:

Mind your own business: Own your mind
Information school graduate peruses graduate school information.
Desire? Consuming produce can produce consuming desire.
I find these rather interesting, because they play on polysemy and grammatical structure, whereas letter-unit palindromes foreground spelling much more.

There doesn't seem to be an analogous set of familiar word-unit palindromes to match the well-known letter-unit palindromes. Looking into the matter a bit, I did run across a number of mentions of the Three Musketeers' slogan (from the Alexandre Dumas novel), "All for one, and one for all". But this chiastic version of word-unit palindrome, where the second half is explicitly a reversed restatement of the first half, is only one possible variety, and not to me the most interesting. More interesting are those that manage to be word-unit palindromes without having that obvious reversed structure. In the first Montfort example above, "mind" means something different in each of its two appearances, and "own" is first an adjective and then an imperative verb.

The 20th century

There have been a small number of 20th-century palindromists who took up the challenge of writing word-unit palindromes. A Briton by the name of J.A. Lindon appears to have started experimenting with them in the 1960s, and introduced the concept to the "recreational linguistics" community with a 1968 article in the journal Word Ways. His examples came to a wider readership when twenty of his sentences and three of his poems were republished in Howard W. Bergerson's 1973 book Palindromes and Anagrams, which credited him as the inventor of the word-unit palindrome. A few examples:

You can cage a swallow, can't you, but you can't swallow a cage, can you!
What! So he is hanged, is he? So what?

This small modern corpus was modestly expanded when Will Shortz devoted a segment of his popular NPR "Sunday Puzzle" segment in early 1997 to a word-unit palindrome contest. He selected a few winners to publish in the February 1997 issue of Word Ways, such as:

Herb the sage eats sage, the herb.
Escher, drawing hands, drew hands drawing Escher.
You know, I did little for you, for little did I know you.

Earlier centuries

Given the popularity of letter-unit palindromes as a 19th-century parlor game, and examples dating back to antiquity, it seemed strange that word-unit palindromes would be invented as late as the 1960s. Unable to find earlier examples by other means (or even a consistently used name for this variation on the palindrome to aid my search), I resorted to brute-force data mining. With a local mirror of several gigabytes of historical English Project Gutenberg e-texts, and a version of a linear-time palindrome-finding algorithm that I adapted to find word-unit palindromes, I looked to see if there were any interesting examples in the historical record.

The vast majority, unfortunately, appear not to be very interesting. The two main classes are chiastic palindromes and those formed through simple repetition.

Word-level palindromes exhibiting chiasmus simply restate something in reverse order, usually to emphasize a point or emphasize symmetry. There are a lot of these:

Brigitte loved Celeste as much as Celeste loved Brigitte (Honoré de Balzac, The Lesser Bourgeoisie)

Julyan fears Armel as little as Armel fears Julyan (Eugène Sue, The Gold Sickle)

sire forsook son, and friend forsook friend and son forsook sire (Kisari Mohan Ganguli, The Mahabharata of Krishna-Dwaipayana Vyasa, Vol. 2)

Simple repetition can of course also produce the desired result, but also without a great deal of linguistic interest:

clatter and hum and crunch, and crunch and hum and clatter (F. Marion Crawford, Doctor Claudius, A True Story)

rode, and rode, and rode, and rode, and rode, and rode, and rode (Mary Roberts Rinehart, Tenting To-night)

Out of the entire corpus scan, only two examples stand out as interesting, in the sense of being based on linguistic wordplay rather than chiasmus or repetition.

The first, despite limiting the search to English volumes, is actually a brief Latin interlude in an early English play. In Thomas Lodge's 1594 play The Wounds of Civil War, collected in this Gutenberg volume, a minor character labeled simply "Genius" enters to issue the folowing Latin phrase, which consists of two consecutive word-unit palidromes in Latin:

GENIUS: Subsequitur tua mors: privari lumine Syllam,
Numina Parcarum jam fera precipiunt
Precipiunt fera jam Parcarum numina Syllam
Lumine privari: mors tua subsequitur.
Elysium petis, ô faelix! et fatidici astri
Praescius: Heroes, ô, petis innumeros!
Innumeros petis, ô, Heroes, praescius astri
Fatidici: et faelix, ô, petis Elysium!

The second is an odd example, a transcription of a tombstone in Cornwall reading as follows:

Shall we all die?
We shall die all.
All die shall we—
Die all we shall.
This is not only a word-unit palindrome, but an example of several other linguistic curiosities as well. Each line is a permutation of the same four words, making it an example of a Proteus Poem (see p. 183 of Dick Higgins' Pattern Poetry). In addition, the poem can be read in columns top-to-bottom, with the same result as normal reading, making it a word-unit version of a word square.

In my automated search, this tombstone's transcription was found in several 19th-century books collecting interesting curiosities; for example, one on Cornwall and one on gravestones. Digging more, it seems to have first come to the attention of literary magazines around 1818–1823, when it appeared in a number of British and American magazines as a curiosity.

Lyon verses

In 1862, the Cornish tombstone's verse appeared in H.B. Wheatley's much-mentioned book, Of Anagrams: A Monograph Treating of Their History From the Earliest Ages to the Present Time. That book devoted two pages to a description of this genre, which it called "Lyon verses" and distinguished from palindromes. The name owed to their purported origin in the (now-French) city of Lyons, where the late-Roman writer Sidonius Apollinaris was said to have invented them.

In addition to Apollinaris, Wheatley credits Politian (15th c.) with several more such verses in Latin, and Baudouin de Condé with having written several in French (13th c.), but no additional English examples. Baudouin de Condé's poem reads as follows:

Amours est vie glorieuse,
Tenir fait ordre gracieuse,
Maintenir veult courtoises, mours.

Mours courtoises veult maintenir,
Gracieuse ordre fait tenire;
Glorieuse vie est amours.

Wheatley's mention of the Cornish tombstone kicked off another wave of mentions in 1860s literary magazines, but it seems to have failed to inspire additional entries into the genre, since this single tombstone's verse continues to be the only English example quoted. The term "Lyon verse" doesn't seem to have entered widespread use either. The concept seems, in the end, to have been left fallow for J.A. Lindon a hundred years later to revive—if indeed he can be said to have revived it, since it seems to languish still on life support, perhaps pending Montfort's resuscitatory efforts.

That leaves the odd question of why letter-unit palindromes became a popular 19th- and 20th-century parlor game, resulting in many well-known examples, while word-unit palindromes have not caught on to the same extent.


Have others?: If you know of other interesting word-unit palindromes (or "Lyon verses") predating the mid-20th-century, I'd love to hear about them.


Mark J. Nelson, 2012-02-07.
Comments welcome: mjas@itu.dk
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