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Strange Words That Turn on You : Remembered Palindrome May Have Now Been Upended

On Dec. 30, my sister, Stephanie, and her daughter, Elizabeth, flew in from Canada, where the wind-chill factor had plummeted the temperature to 40-below. They told me a story I’d never heard before about Alastair Reid’s palindrome. I think it’s good enough to share.

Palindrome, as you may know, is from the Greek palindromos , meaning “running back,” and it’s a word or phrase whose letters are the same backward and forward: level, rotor and Hannah, for instance. “Madam, I’m Adam” is probably the best-known palindrome; the response, “Eve,” is another. “Able was I ere I saw Elba” was supposed to have been uttered by Napoleon, but he’d have uttered it in French, so it wouldn’t have worked.

I met Alastair Reid in 1951 through my sister and brother-in-law, who had come back from Europe on the same ship with him--one of those merchant ships that, in addition to cargo, carry anywhere from two to about a dozen passengers. Alastair was a tall, lean, handsome young Scot with strawberry blond hair, and he was headed for a teaching post at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y. Sarah Lawrence was a women’s college at the time, and Alastair was (and still is) a fine poet. With his strong but intensely sensitive good looks and his appealing Scottish burr, he was a walking magnet for the hearts of young women. By way of lagniappe, he taught courses not only in poetry, but--O surging fantasies of high-seas romance!--in sailing. I dated several of the undergraduates during that time, and I know for a fact that there were dozens of young beauties there whose devotion was for him alone. When he opted for one of them, a dark-haired, long-limbed student of the dance, and married her, the maidenly sobs and cracking of hearts could be heard for miles around.

“Ounce, Dice, Trice,” an Alastair Reid book of poems for juveniles, introduces children to the fun of words. Introducing children to words in any form is, to my mind, one of the noblest of endeavors. Alastair himself has had great fun with words, both poetically and prosaically. One of his minor triumphs was the creation of a palindrome. A short while after he’d created his palindrome, Alastair was visiting with my sister’s family, and he divulged it to them. Elizabeth, then about 10 years old, wrote it down and committed it to memory.

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Elizabeth is now 31 and a lawyer. She says that when she was in the sixth grade, her teacher, a Mr. McLeod, introduced the class to palindromes, thus introducing them to fun with words and thereby earning, about 20 years late, at least a tip of the hat and a nod of gratitude. Mr. Mcleod gave them “Madam, I’m Adam,” “Eve,” “A man, a plan, a canal, Panama,” and a couple of others; then he asked if any of the children could think of another palindrome. Elizabeth said she could: “T. Eliot, top bard, notes putrid tang emanating, is sad. I’d assign it a name: gnat dirt upset on drab pot toilet.”

Like most palindromic sentences, that’s not the sort of thing you hear in the workaday world. Mr. McLeod, suitably flabbergasted, asked her if she could write that on the blackboard so they could double-check its palindromic quality. She did, and it checked out. McLeod, as well as Elizabeth’s classmates, was impressed.

At the time of its creation, Alastair’s palindrome was conceded by international authorities to be the longest yet. I’ve heard that his has since been outstripped at least once. If anyone knows any palindromes longer than the one about T. Eliot and the drab pot toilet, I’d appreciate hearing them. I’ll pass them on to the family in Canada.


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