Palindromist Pens BookBy Molly Boyd
Stephen J. Chism, reference librarian at UA’s Mullins Library, (pictured at right) has long been interested in palindromes. While a graduate student, Chism became intrigued with the idea of composing a response to the famous one-line palindrome “Madam, I’m Adam.” Chism’s imaginative reply, “Sir, I’m Iris,” was the first of many palindromes, including such gems as “Devil, in Eve’s eyes even I lived” and “Ah, a Mayan on a Yamaha.”
Chism’s fascination with palindromes ultimately led to the publication of “From A to Zotamorf: A Dictionary of Palindromes,” published by Word Ways Press in 1992. The largest collection of English palindromes, containing over 7,000 examples, Chism’s dictionary necessitated the creation of a new Library of Congress subject area, where it resides with René Droin’s “Dictionnaire extraordinaire des mots ordinaires” (Belfond 1991), the only two entries in the field, a fact that pleases the librarian in Chism.
Nicknamed “Zotamorf,” which is itself a reversal of the phrase “from a to z,” Chism’s dictionary became the all-time best-selling monograph for Word Ways Press and can be found in over 100 libraries on three continents, including the library at the University of Oxford.
“I gave it to them,” Chism confides, “when I presented a paper there on palindromes” for the International Popular Culture Conference of 1995.
Chism’s palindromes have been quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle and The New York Times magazine, and have been illustrated by Jon Agee in one of his best-selling palindromic cartoon books. Richard L. Marsh of the University of Georgia even used Chism’s palindromes in a psychology experiment involving memory retrieval cues.
In explanation of his interest in this ancient form of word play, Chism declares simply, “I’m a Libra.” He describes his ability to walk backwards on a single rail of train tracks or to stand stork-like on one leg for 20 minutes at a time. “It’s all about balance,” he continues. To illustrate, he grabs a book from a stack, balances it on the tip of one finger and spins it deftly, à la Cirque du Soleil. When asked about Michael Donner’s statement in “I Love Me, Vol. I” that palindromic outbursts are “a sort of cultivated dyslexia,” Chism counters whimsically, “Or perhaps the precision of palindromes serves the stunted mathematical part of me.”
The first recorded palindromes are found in ancient Greek texts. The word “palindrome” is a compound of the Greek words “palin” (“back”) and “dromos” (“race course”), creating the image of a word or phrase looping back upon itself. The term is attributed to Sotades of Maroneia in Greek-ruled Egypt, whom King Ptolemy II had thrown into the sea -- sealed in a lead coffin -- in the third century B.C. after Sotades reportedly insulted the king in one of his palindromes. Ptolemy ended Sotades’ political career on a heavy note but did not obliterate the continued fascination with satiric and scurrilous palindromes that are still known to this day as “Sotadic verses.” Examples abound and include “Yawn! Madonna fan? No damn way!” or Chism’s “Drat Saddam: a mad dastard.”
Chism explains that in an era when few people could read or write, the written word itself was fascinating and mysterious. To those illiterate people of ages past, palindromes were often wondrous, or manifestations of the divine. Palindromes were etched on monuments, over doorways, and were even recited over women struggling with a difficult childbirth. Chism writes in the preface to his dictionary, “I believe that human beings are fascinated with palindromes because, in an uncertain world, they provide a sense of order through their perfect balance and symmetry” and “put us in touch with mystery.”
The earliest traceable palindrome in English was written by John Taylor in 1614: “Lewd did I live & evil did I dwel.” Palindromes can be single words, such as “rotator,” “civic,” or “nun,” but these are rare. Most palindromes take the form of a sentence or brief passage, such as Leigh Mercer’s oft-quoted “A man, a plan, a canal -- Panama!” Other examples include “Drab as a fool, aloof as a bard” and “Do geese see God?”
In addition, there are palindromic verses and poems, and a palindromic novel of nearly 32,000 words titled “Dr. Awkward & Olson in Oslo,” published in 1986 by Lawrence Levine. Longer, however, is not necessarily better, according to Ross Eckler, who writes in “Making the Alphabet Dance” that “palindromic phrases and sentences could be made as long as one pleased, providing that not too much overall sense was required. Most read like the ravings of a maniac.” A good example recorded by Howard Bergerson in his “Palindromes and Anagrams”
is “Maiden, if no craft so melts a chasse legato poem of foot ageless -- Ah, castle most far, confined I am.”
“It’s an uphill job trying to get people interested in palindromes. The written word is being supplanted by the visual world so easily accessible through television, movies, video games, and the internet,” Chism says. Yet palindromes abound in popular culture. Authors including Jonathan Swift, Edgar Allan Poe, Lewis Carroll and W. H. Auden have contributed to the genre. And who could forget the tension-building “redrum” in “The Shining?” From the album title “Live Evil” used by both Miles Davis and Black Sabbath to the protagonist “Stanley Yelnats” in the juvenile novel “Holes” by Louis Sachar, pop culture repeatedly demonstrates the continued appeal of palindromes.
A last palindrome of Chism, “Fini? One more? Rome, no, in… if…,” might easily be answered by a more optimistic one from Bill Bryson, “Are we not drawn onward, we few, drawn onward to new era?”