What Is a Palindrome?

Some people may see or hear the word palindrome and wonder what it is.

A palindrome is a word, a phrase, or a sequence of words that read the same way in either direction, as with madam, don’t nod, and Eva, can I see bees in a cave? A palindrome can include spaces and punctuation.

The word comes from the Greek palindromos (“running back again”; palin “back,” dromos “direction”). Its original meaning applied to the backward movement of a crab.

Sources suggest different dates of the word’s earliest use, but they seem to agree that it appeared sometime between the first and third centuries A.D. It is cited as having been introduced into English in the seventeenth century by a British poet and writer.

Some of the most common palindromes are character units that form the same word front to back and back to front.

Examples

level pop radar
civic refer solos
noon gig stats
kayak rotator sagas
racecar tenet wow

You’ll also find palindromes as multi-word phrases.

Examples

my gym a nut for a jar of tuna
top spot drawer as a reward
no lemon, no melon no trace; not one carton
a man, a plan, a canal—Panama! so many dynamos
never odd or even too hot to hoot

The marvel of palindromes reveals itself most when they extend into full sentences.

Examples

Step on no pets. Mr. Owl ate my metal worm.
Do geese see God? Some men interpret nine memos.
Bombard a drab mob. Marge lets Norah see Sharon’s telegram.
Too bad—I hid a boot. Gateman sees name; garageman sees nametag.
Was it a car or a cat I saw? Are we not drawn onward, we few, drawn onward to new era?

The longest palindromic sentence on record contains 21,012 words (a number that is itself a palindrome). The designer, Peter Norvig, released it at 20:02 (U.S. military time) on 02/20/2002.

Pop Quiz

Now that you know what a palindrome is, identify which of the following sentences are palindromes. 

1. I ran the can all the way to the van.

2. No, it can; as it is, it is a war. Raw as it is; it is an action.

3. Adam, I am the madam who will help you find your way from Ada.

4. Sir, I demand, I am a maid named Iris.

5. No, it is open on one position.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

2. No, it can; as it is, it is a war. Raw as it is; it is an action. 

4. Sir, I demand, I am a maid named Iris.

5. No, it is open on one position.


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7 Comments on What Is a Palindrome?

7 responses to “What Is a Palindrome?”

  1. Janet says:

    What a pity Peter Norvig didn’t use the English date form day/month/year to make the release date and time a palindrome too. (20:02 on 20/02/2002)

    • GrammarBook.com says:

      That’s a good observation. Mr. Norvig did intentionally release the palindrome at a palindromic moment: 20:02 02/20 2002 (military time in the US) and 20:02 20/02 2002 (time format in the rest of the world).

  2. Brenda says:

    You omitted my favorite one: Able was I ere I saw Elba (attributed to Napoleon). Thanks, this was fun.

  3. Brad Verrico says:

    “Madam, don’t nod” is NOT a palindrome… “Don’t nod, madam, don’t nod” is. Love reading all your stuff!

    • GrammarBook.com says:

      It seems you misread the sentence. We were referring to three palindromes: 1) madam, 2) don’t nod, and 3) Eva, can I see bees in a cave. We are however glad that the article got you thinking more closely about palindromes.

  4. Steven Rosenberg says:

    Is there a term for a palindrome that reads differently forward and backward? Like “ten” and “net.”

    • GrammarBook.com says:

      Ten and net are not palindromes. Some people refer to a word that reads as another word when spelled backward as an “Emordnilap” (backward palindrome), although the word is not listed in any dictionaries we checked.

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