For most of us, palindromes are just something we learn about one day in school. The teacher writes “race car” on the board, explaining that the phrase is the same backwards as forwards; minds are temporarily blown; and then everyone goes about their lives. But for true palindromists, crafting these linguistic mirror images is an obsession. And they’re about to test their best creations in a competition judged by the likes of crossword guru Will Shortz and “Weird Al” Yankovic. In this week’s Wednesday Words, we ask the judges what they’re looking for and preview some of the finalists.
The first annual SymmyS awards for “outstanding palindrome achievement” were organized by stand-up comedian Mark Saltveit, who runs the online Palindromist magazine out of Portland, Ore. The prizes for this painstaking battle of the wits are bragging rights and pencils decorated with author Jon Agee’s palindrome “Todd erases a red dot.” Unlike another palindrome showdown held last year, there was no time limit on entries. Hundreds of submissions were narrowed down to 40 finalists, ten in each of four categories: long, short, poetry and word-unit (i.e. palindromes that reverse words rather than letters, like “All for one, and one for all!”).
The criteria for judging were left up to the judges, whom we surveyed via email. Their ranks will determine a winner in each category and an overall champ. “Weird Al,” who names “Oozy rat in a sanitary zoo” as a personal favorite, says a winner should show a sense of humor or a spark of wit, as he did in his palindromic song “Bob,” which contains another renowned Agee line: “Go hang a salami, I’m a lasagna hog.”
Many of the entries, anonymous until the winners are announced, certainly have a cheeky side. Take this submission:
A slightly violent to-do list
Will Shortz, famed editor of the New York Times crossword, says that beyond humor, “The most important criteria for a palindrome are sense and naturalness of syntax.” Classics like “A man, a plan, a canal: Panama” belie how difficult it is to make even a moderate amount of sense in a palindrome. Shortz says this is his favorite palindrome, and the longest one he’s ever seen that is generally coherent:
“T. Eliot, top bard, notes putrid tang emanating, is sad. I’d assign it a name — gnat-dirt upset on drab pot toilet.”
Cohering can be easier in word-unit palindromes. Take this sportsman-friendly finalist: “Fishing for excuses? No need. You need no excuses for fishing.” Many of the entries take more brain power to read, such as this poem entitled “Internal Terrorism”:
A maniac ire made target.
Ah, a mix — a mania, terror on Ohio.
I honor or retain a maxim:
“A hate grated America in a mad, rawer mood.”
Palindromist and judge Jeff Grant says he’s also looking for a “natural” quality in palindromes, as in one of his favorites: “Sex at noon taxes.” Comedian Jackie Kashian, who hosts the podcast “The Dork Forest,” says she’ll be looking for depth, though she also loves the simplicity of creations like “evil olive.” Other judges include comedian Demetri Martin and musician John Flansburgh of They Might Be Giants.
To some, the amount of time and effort it takes to craft a palindrome may seem like a waste. But they are the perfect circles of wordplay, nerdy gems that illustrate the potential of our language. “The writing of a brilliant palindrome is a small miracle,” Yankovic says, “and that, I think, deserves to be honored more than a lot of the stupid and inconsequential things we often celebrate in our culture.” The winners will be announced this weekend in Portland and on the Palindromist’s website. A press release from organizer Saltveit notes that the awards ceremony will be modeled after the Oscars, though any offensive musical numbers will be limited to singular “boob” references.
Wednesday Words is a weekly column that delves into the way we wag our tongues and wield our pens.