Sometime in the mid-1940s, Leigh Mercer rescued from the trash several thousand index cards that his employer, Rawlplug, had thrown out. Mercer may not have yet had a plan, but he had an idea. He’d grown up in a family that cherished word games and had lived through the birth of the modern crossword puzzle craze, but he’d noticed that no one had seriously set their minds to the problem of palindromes. Though Mercer wasn’t interested in crosswords, he’d acquired a used copy of a book for crossworders that contained lists of words—no definitions—grouped alphabetically and according to length. Using this book and his new stash of recovered index cards, he began copying out possible palindrome centers—any word or snippet of a phrase that might be reversible. In 1946, he came up with one construction: “Plan a canal p.” It was, he himself later admitted, “not very hopeful looking,” but all great plans have to start somewhere.
It took him two years to find Panama.
Mercer has long since been placed in the upper ranks of the great palindromists. Over the years he submitted hundreds of palindromes to the British periodical Notes and Queries, including “Now, Ned, I am a maiden won,” “Nurse, I spy gypsies—run!,” and “Did Hannah say as Hannah did?” But outside the world of word game enthusiasts (a.k.a. logologists), he is largely unknown. This despite being the author of a
seven-word, mostly inaccurate synopsis of a complex engineering feat that became one of the most widely known palindromes in English.
“A man, a plan, a canal, Panama” works well as a palindrome because it’s not only the same letters read backward and forward, but it also makes sense, which is more than many palindromes do. “Satan, oscillate my metallic sonatas” is a terrific palindrome, but what does it mean? It’s mostly a string of unlikely, complicated words, a common problem in many otherwise-great palindromes, including another Mercer invention: “Six at party, no pony trap, taxis.”
The Panama palindrome does more than just make sense: it connects a string of nouns that, through association, begins to tell a story—similar to another beloved palindrome: “A dog, a panic, in a pagoda.” Because the mind looks for connections, wanting to make meaning out of nonsense, it pulls together the available clues and reconstitutes them as best it can. Like a haiku, its art lies partly in its brevity. But unlike the pagoda palindrome, the Panama palindrome comes together with a shock of recognition—the sudden delight at the end as a familiar story forms, the word Panama arriving like a punch line.
Good palindromes fascinate because of how they mean, not just what they mean. They run in two directions at once: the phrase itself proceeds toward its end; meanwhile, the order of the words themselves reverses midway through and starts to run backward. By the end, morphology is at odds with semantics. The sense of the phrase is Wile E. Coyote hurtling toward the edge of a cliff, even as the letters themselves give up, turn around, and run back the other way. The palindrome’s magic exists here, between the grammatical sense of a normal sentence and the mathematical relationship between letters and their arrangement.
Palindromes exist the world over and are among the earliest forms of wordplay. The Latin phrase known as the Sator Square—“Sator arepo tenet opera rotas” (“The plowman Arepo puts his shoulder to the wheel”)—has been found among the graffiti in the ruins of Pompeii, and it’s traveled the globe since. A more recent Latin palindrome, “In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni,” translates to “At night we spin around and are consumed by fire”—a reference, depending on whom you ask, to either moths or Satanists. Nor are palindromes restricted to the Western world; In Japanese they are known as kaibun, “circle sentences,” and include the word for “tomato” (客徊客) as well as longer phrases such as 物虱炊狎”邸羌玟肺玟羌邸”狎炊虱物 (“How many light clever cats are there?”).
There are palindromes hidden in the Qur’an (including in verse 21:33, كل في فلك, “each floating in its orbit”), but this is perhaps to be expected, as palindromes have long been associated with religion and magic. In one medieval church, the five nails of the cross on which Jesus was crucified are named after the five words in the Sator Square, but this palindrome in particular has also been used for magical purposes everywhere from medieval France to Brazil. The Gauls used it as a remedy against fever, and in eighteenth-century Saxony, discs with the Sator Square were used to extinguish fires.
Why should these nonsense phrases have such occult power? Perhaps because of the innate tension between the sense of a phrase and its architecture. As Dmitri A. Borgmann, often referred to as the “father of logology,” wrote, the great palindromists’ hunt for ever more dazzling palindromes “parallels in many ways the service provided by the untold numbers of monks and recluses of the unending past who have spent much of their lives and sometimes their sanity sifting through the logic of languages in hopes of discovering there a key to a hidden symbolism of meaning and significance.” Creating palindromes, he argues, is “an attempt to gaze through the crystal surface of language to glimpse the relationship of man to a cosmological order.” The Scottish poet Alastair Reid, in his 1963 book Passwords, echoes a similar sentiment: “The dream which occupies the tortuous mind of every palindromist is that somewhere within the confines of the language lurks the Great Palindrome, the nutshell which not only fulfills the intricate demands of the art, flowing sweetly in both directions, but which also contains the Final Truth of Things.”
Reid’s comment calls to mind the image of the book that lies at the heart of Jorge Luis Borges’s story “The Library of Babel.” Somewhere in an infinite world of books and bookshelves, Borges’s narrator explains, “there must exist a book that is the cipher and perfect compendium of all other books.” The palindromist believes that somewhere in the English language is a word or phrase that might be the cipher and compendium of the language as a whole—and that such a phrase is a palindrome.
Mercer had, as he once confessed to fellow logologist Howard W. Bergerson, a “lifetime of interest in palindromes, to the exclusion of all other types of word play.” Born in 1893, the son of a church parson and the brother of a journalist turned historian, he saw himself, he later explained, “as the fool of the family, a professional ne’er-do-well.” He spent his life doing low-profile odd jobs; he worked mostly as a mechanic, but tried his hand at everything from sidewalk chalk artist to yo-yo salesman. The London Times described him in 1969 as looking like a “long-suffering law clerk or maybe one of those fist-shaking small town newspaper editors that Hollywood created for its Westerns.” He was “pensioner-thin” and wore old wire spectacles and an ill-fitting suit.
Palindromes weren’t Mercer’s only hobby, and he once stressed to A. Ross Eckler, editor of the language-game magazine Word Ways, that he didn’t want to be thought of “purely as a ’drome man.” He was fond of anagrams, transpositions (he noted that if you moved every letter in the word cheer seven spaces forward in the alphabet, you’d get jolly), and math puzzles. Eckler saw him as “primarily a collector of word curiosa rather than a creator,” a one-man Wunderkammer of wordplay—though it is palindromes that are his legacy.
Why has Mercer never been truly recognized beyond the ranks of puzzlers? Compare him to another virtuoso palindromist, Georges Perec, who produced a one-thousand-word palindrome in 1969. But Perec was not merely a palindromist—he was a novelist and poet, and a member of the Oulipo, an avant-garde group of writers and mathematicians devoted to experimenting through artificial linguistic constraints.
Perec’s true masterpiece is his three-hundred-page novel, La disparition, which is a lipogram: a text in which certain letters—in this case, e—never appear. The joy of a lipogram is that it forces the writer to rethink word choice, ideally creating unexpected and delightful constructions in the process. As the poet Jean Lescure explains, “What the Oulipo intended to demonstrate was that these constraints are felicitous, generous, and are in fact literature itself.”
Do added constraints always unleash new kinds of expression, new kinds of thought? In the case of palindromes, the answer is often no. Palindromes are a kind of constraint that is, in the end, not particularly generous; they seem to withdraw their pleasure the longer they go on. Bergerson’s “Edna Waterfall,” for example, a thirty-five-line palindromic poem, is a tortured mess. “Deliver no evil, avid diva I saw die,” it begins, becoming harder to stomach the longer it continues. It is a thing to marvel at, but not to enjoy.
There’s another reason that word tinkerers in France and Italy have ascended to the hallowed halls of literature, while Anglophone logologists are relegated to recreational word games. For Perec and the Oulipians, palindromes and lipograms were a means for creating new art and new poetry. For Mercer, they were, it seems, an end unto themselves.
Plus, Mercer rarely even claimed authorship for the palindromes he’d submitted to Notes and Queries, even ones that were known to be original. He had, as Eckler termed it, a “casual attitude toward attribution” when it came to his and others’ work. Once, when Bergerson asked him who had created a list of palindromes, Mercer replied, “The question is difficult—many were started by A and improved by B.” It’s a kind of thinking anathema to how we normally approach writing, authorship, and originality. For Mercer, it’s almost as though these phrases were not original inventions so much as precious ore in the bedrock of language: they were simply there, waiting to be found.
The Panama palindrome is by no means the longest or the most complex, nor is it even one of Mercer’s best (among logologists his “Sums are not set as a test on Erasmus” is perhaps more beloved). But the Panama palindrome remains among the most widely known, and—along with “Able I was ere I saw Elba” and “Madam, I’m Adam”—it’s one many people know by heart. But is it a good palindrome?
In 2006 another logologist, Richard Lederer, laid out a typology of palindromes, singling out elegance and surprise as two of the key components: nothing too clunky or complicated, and nothing that relies overmuch on the simple reversal of words. “Rats live on no evil star” and “Able was I ere I saw Elba” are, to Lederer, examples of inferior craftsmanship.
The best palindromes rely on what Lederer clunkily calls “reconfiguration of the letter clusters and spaces in the first half,” teasing out words hidden backward and overlapping into other words—as Mercer does with “Niagara, O roar again!”
Beyond this quality, though, Lederer argues that the ideal palindrome has some semblance of sentence structure—subject-verb agreement, for example, such as in “Yes, Syd, Owen saved Eva’s new Odyssey” (another Mercer gem). Last, Lederer argues that a good palindrome will have what he calls “bubble-off-plumb imagery”: “The highest-drawer palindromic statements invoke a picture of the world that is a bubble off plumb yet somehow of our world. One could warn one’s nurse that gypsies are nearby” (this in reference to “Nurse, I spy gypsies, run!”). According to all of these criteria, Lederer pronounces the greatest palindrome to be “Go hang a salami, I’m a lasagna hog!”
The Panama palindrome, by contrast, lacks this bubble-off-plumb imagery—but this may be why it’s better known than Lederer’s preferred candidate. Logologists have a tendency to favor the surprising and absurd, whereas the Panama palindrome evokes an actual moment in history.
Its fame may suggest that it somehow gets at the Final Truth of Things sought by the poet Alastair Reid—but if so, it fails to grasp any literal truth. Who would be the man, after all, who had the plan, and which plan would that be? Was it Ulysses S. Grant, the first US president to recognize the importance of an interoceanic canal for American interests, or Ferdinand-Marie de Lesseps, the French diplomat who built the Suez Canal and organized the first, failed attempt at a Panama Canal? Or French diplomat Philippe-Jean Bunau-Varilla, who, along with American lawyer William Nelson Cromwell, fomented a revolution in Panama and ensured the United States’ military involvement?
Theodore Roosevelt would later claim to be the man with the plan, famously stating, “The Panama Canal would not have been started if I had not taken hold of it…. Accordingly, I took the Isthmus.” But historians (if not palindromists) agree this is a wild overstatement, and Roosevelt himself is said to have remarked privately, “I took Panama because Bunau-Varilla brought it to me on a silver platter.”
Of course, none of this was on Mercer’s mind when he found the key to connecting his initial “Plan, a canal P” fragment. But once the words clicked, they created a shorthand for an American foreign policy that reduced the messy detritus of history into a neat, easily remembered package.
Maybe it’s here that Reid’s Final Truth of Things lies, in the over-simplified narrative of “great men,” but I’d rather believe that the truth in palindromes lies in something deeper. Poets, children, and lunatics understand that the sense of language is built up out of babble and nonsense, a series of gibberish sounds that only through convention carry any kind of weight. When we’re young it’s exhilarating to indulge in the pleasure of repeating a word again and again until it devolves into meaninglessness: a whistle past a graveyard, a reminder that just over the edge of this cliff called sense lies nothing but chaos.
A good palindrome, like other language tricks and games, reveals the vertiginous abyss that is that nonsense, and then immediately reconstitutes its words into a delightful new sense. “O, Geronimo, no minor ego.” It brings you close, then snaps you back—or rather, perhaps it’s better to say it brings you safely into that abyss and through it, so fast that only afterward do you realize you’ve crossed it.
I’ve been obsessed with palindromes my whole life, even though I’m terrible at them. I can occasionally jury-rig one that satisfies the criterium of being surprising, but it usually makes little to no sense. “A nan, a banal plan—a banana!,” for example, or “Sycamore zero Macy’s.” I sometimes get close. If you accept “P.X.” as a proper name—a psychoanalyst’s initials, perhaps—then “‘Denial!,’ P.X. explained,” nearly works, but this is admittedly pretty weak.
Because palindromes are so hard for me to write, I’ve defaulted to anagrams and other linguistic games, including those I’ve devised for myself over the years—the rules and formulas of which are so hopelessly strange and esoteric that I could never bear to explain them to another. Still, to this day I’ve been known to randomly interrupt a conversation to blurt out some anagram or other nonsense phrase. My wife, family, and friends who know me well are used to it by this point: they’ll stop, nod good-naturedly to humor me, and then continue the conversation.
In Fred Ovsiew and Richard L. Munich’s Principles of Inpatient Psychiatry, there is a textbook example, if you will, of how palindromes can correlate with deeper mental health issues. In a case vignette, Mr. B., a forty-seven-year-old man with a history of bipolar disorder, had stopped taking his lithium and disappeared. When his brother found him and delivered him to a psychiatric hospital, he demonstrated “pressured speech, grandiosity, and flight of ideas,” but was generally alert, denied any suicidal or homicidal ideation, and refused to consent to admission to the hospital. However, when asked if he had some kind of “plan” for his own self-care should he be released, Mr. B. replied, “A man, a plan, a canal, panama, palindromes, palindromes, motherfucker, what!” (Mr. B. was subsequently admitted against his will.)
Also, Chris Harding, a former FDA employee who was diagnosed with late-onset schizoaffective disorder, bipolar type, posted online that palindromes can further trigger his mental instability: “For example, a rude person in a grocery store might be wearing a specific solid color, and my mind will then start believing that color is code that is being used by a nefarious criminal network to cause my suicide or threats on my family and friends’ lives, including children. I project the color onto a car with a certain color, the license plate numbers, if a pattern can be derived like a palindrome, also becomes code. The delusions of reference become a global delusion, and anxiety and paranoia increase drastically.” And in 1989 a group of students were shown Perec’s thousand-word palindrome without context or explanation; according to Perec’s biographer, David Bellos, those “with psychiatric interests identified the author as an adolescent in a dangerously paranoid state.” The problem with my language games is that there is no way to determine if they’re a hedge against madness or its earliest indications.
When one spends this much time constructing and deconstructing the constituents of language, one becomes, not unlike the child babbling gibberish, acutely aware of the fragility of sense, and how close one is to toppling into the abyss of incoherence. And if you cannot stop, if you cannot bring yourself to end this repeated glimpse of the void, perpetually toying with the words on which any foundation of sanity rests? What then? You never truly know, do you, when you lay an offering at the mouth of the cave of the beast, if you are appeasing it or making it stronger.
Because it’s a list and not a sentence, the Panama palindrome is simple enough to be easily modified. Adding additional nouns beyond “a man,” “a plan,” and “a canal” doesn’t change the overall structure. In 1983, computer science grad student Jim Saxe added a cat to the mix (“A man, a plan, a cat, a canal, Panama”), and others have since added increasingly long series of nouns. Guy Jacobson refashioned it as “A man, a plan, a cat, a ham, a yak, a yam, a hat, a canal, Panama!,” followed by an even longer version, usually attributed to Guy Steele:
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!
Forgive the “sore hats”; Steele’s addition of “a banana bag again (or a camel)” is masterful, extracting a strange grammatical sense out of his increasingly strange list of improbable things needed to build an artificial waterway through Central America.
This kind of nonsense quickly spins out of control. Using a computer that trawled the dictionary, Dan Hoey created this monstrosity in 1984:
A man, a plan, a caret, a ban, a myriad, a sum, a lac, a liar, a hoop, a pint, a catalpa, a gas, an oil, a bird, a yell, a vat, a caw, a pax, a wag, a tax, a nay, a ram, a cap, a yam, a gay, a tsar, a wall, a car, a luger, a ward, a bin, a woman, a vassal, a wolf, a tuna, a nit, a pall, a fret, a watt, a bay, a daub, a tan, a cab, a datum, a gall, a hat, a fag, a zap, a say, a jaw, a lay, a wet, a gallop, a tug, a trot, a trap, a tram, a torr, a caper, a top, a tonk, a toll, a ball, a fair, a sax, a minim, a tenor, a bass, a passer, a capital, a rut, an amen, a ted, a cabal, a tang, a sun, an ass, a maw, a sag, a jam, a dam, a sub, a salt, an axon, a sail, an ad, a wadi, a radian, a room, a rood, a rip, a tad, a pariah, a revel, a reel, a reed, a pool, a plug, a pin, a peek, a parabola, a dog, a pat, a cud, a nu, a fan, a pal, a rum, a nod, an eta, a lag, an eel, a batik, a mug, a mot, a nap, a maxim, a mood, a leek, a grub, a gob, a gel, a drab, a citadel, a total, a cedar, a tap, a gag, a rat, a manor, a bar, a gal, a cola, a pap, a yaw, a tab, a raj, a gab, a nag, a pagan, a bag, a jar, a bat, a way, a papa, a local, a gar, a baron, a mat, a rag, a gap, a tar, a decal, a tot, a led, a tic, a bard, a leg, a bog, a burg, a keel, a doom, a mix, a map, an atom, a gum, a kit, a baleen, a gala, a ten, a don, a mural, a pan, a faun, a ducat, a pagoda, a lob, a rap, a keep, a nip, a gulp, a loop, a deer, a leer, a lever, a hair, a pad, a tapir, a door, a moor, an aid, a raid, a wad, an alias, an ox, an atlas, a bus, a madam, a jag, a saw, a mass, an anus, a gnat, a lab, a cadet, an em, a natural, a tip, a caress, a pass, a baronet, a minimax, a sari, a fall, a ballot, a knot, a pot, a rep, a carrot, a mart, a part, a tort, a gut, a poll, a gateway, a law, a jay, a sap, a zag, a fat, a hall, a gamut, a dab, a can, a tabu, a day, a batt, a waterfall, a patina, a nut, a flow, a lass, a van, a mow, a nib, a draw, a regular, a call, a war, a stay, a gam, a yap, a cam, a ray, an ax, a tag, a wax, a paw, a cat, a valley, a drib, a lion, a saga, a plat, a catnip, a pooh, a rail, a calamus, a dairyman, a bater, a canal, Panama!
It technically works, but it relies on gibberish (“a bater,” “an em,” and “a say”), and it is long enough that all sense is lost and the palindrome topples into meaninglessness. The program used here was rudimentary enough that even Hoey knew his effort could be easily bested, and sure enough, Peter Norvig assembled a 21,012-word variation to commemorate the palindromic date of 6-10-2016, and it is absolutely as unbearable and unreadable as it sounds. And yet, even as everything falls apart, you reach the end—“a canal, Panama!”—and it’s like all is forgiven, like everything is somehow right once more.
It’s not just the Panama palindrome. “Was it a rat I saw?” is a straightforward and well-worn palindrome, but logologist Jim Puder notes in his 2002 article “On the Abundance of Palindromes” that any number of objects might be seen in such a statement. He includes a dizzying list of variations that stretches for pages, including (to sample just a few):
Was it a canoe on a cat I saw?
Was it Lucy’s sassy cult I saw?
Was it Nurse Tate’s runt I saw?
Was it Ackroyd, a mad York cat,
Was it Wendel, Bram’s marbled
newt, I saw?
And on, and on, and on. This is what is so fascinating about a palindrome—it is a thing tightly formed, and yet in its secret and unstable heart it contains an endless, vertiginous possibility. This hidden facet is what actually does get to “the Final Truth of Things”: the strange, yawning abyss that can open up in the middle of the palindrome. The way a short and deliberate list can quickly cascade into an endless series of words that is increasingly meaningless. The way sense slides so easily and gracefully into terrifying nonsense.