Making the Most of Palindromes
Anyone can come up with a list of palindromes. The real challenge is to use them intelligently in published writing. Can a writer incorporate palindromes (words or phrases that read the same backwards and forwards) in any meaningful and credible way? Or will they remain nothing more than amusing stand-alone oddities?
Here are five suggested uses for palindromes in fiction writing:
1. Place them in the mouth of a social misfit. Anyone who quotes palindromes incessantly in real life (“Go hang a salami, I’m a lasagna hog”) is clearly a person to be pitied. Waiting their moment to spring their new-found witticism upon the unsuspecting audience (“We panic in a pew”), the palindrome bore will never create one of his own and is always oblivious to the drooping eyelids on his hapless victims.
If your novel contains such a nerd, stick a palindrome or two in his mouth and let your readers wince.
2. Use in crime or supernatural genres as a means of filling out a character’s profile. A serial killer who leaves palindromes as his calling card, for instance, may be more memorable than one who merely cuts a lock of the victim’s hair. “Borrow or rob” seems a possible option for such a criminal. Or, perhaps, “Dennis and Edna sinned”, for a nasty double murder.
3. Incorporate into historic works – especially those set in the ancient world. Both Greek and Roman cultures used palindromes. The Sator Square, for instance, confounds scholars to the present day, with over fifty published books or academic articles seeking to explain this four-ways Latin palindrome:
The words literally mean, “The farmer Arepo uses his plough as his form of work”, and have been discovered etched onto several Roman buildings across Europe. Some have suggested that the graffiti is evidence of an early Christian household – the letters, stretched out, make the phrase PATER NOSTER (“Our Father”) in the shape of a cross, with a spare A and O (representing Alpha and Omega). Alternatively, it has been described as a piece of magical incantation, used in Greek-inspired mystery religion. The word Abracadabra was used in a similar way in the second century as a triangular chant believed to posses healing properties.
Whatever the meaning, the graffiti shows that palindromes were part of the culture of the classical civilizations. Writers locating their stories in those worlds could do worse than slip in the odd back-to-front phrase – if they can create or find one.
4. Throw into a comedy, or use as part of a comic interlude. Hammy, Pythonesque work may best suit a character tasked with the immortal lines, “Satan, oscillate my metallic sonatas”, or, “Ten animals I slam in a net”. Perhaps a suitable palindromic name (Mike Kim, for instance) might also be appropriate for this individual.
5. Create palindrome poetry. We are indebted again to the ancients, who occasionally came up with such verse. Greek, Sanskrit and Hebrew palindromes have all been discovered – mostly in the form of proverbs or short poems.
Surely, the mother of all niche literature would be to publish your own palindrome poetry, create the blog and monetize the experience through a palindrome product store. Mugs engraved with “A nut for a jar of tuna” (and your logo) are guaranteed to enliven any office.
Perhaps not. The challenge for the palindrome poet, of course, is to get beyond the one-line Napoleon’s Lament, “Able was I ere I saw Elba.”
The English language’s first full-length palindrome novel would, of course, take the art form to the ultimate level and ensure that the writer’s memory would never fade. A reviewer of such a ground-breaking work may, themselves, be tempted to lapse into palindromic praise: “Are we not drawn onward, we few, drawn onward to new era?”
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