Words that go back and forth




Before I learned the meaning of the word “palindrome,” I thought it had something to do with merry-go-rounds. If you repeat the word out loud, you’ll hear those three syllables, stressed-unstressed-unstressed. This kind of metrical foot, called a dactyl, comes from the Greek for “finger,” and in this case it pointed to a carousel and me sitting on a palomino with a wild eye and a dark gold coat. (Both the eye and the coat on the palomino, not me.)


Unsurprisingly, I was wrong. A palindrome is a number, word, phrase, or sentence read the same frontward and backward.


I don’t remember when I learned what the word actually meant, but I know I have enjoyed reading words backward since I was a young girl. Discovering that star talked back and said rats and that was said saw as soon as it turned its back on you seemed magical and subversive at the same time. If I paid attention, I could find enchanted words all around me able to say two things at the same time, and some of them sassy to boot.


People have been palindroming forever, or at least in Latin since the late first century, which seems forever to someone expected to live just eight or so decades. Although the inhabitants of Pompeii disappeared when Mt. Vesuvius erupted in 79 A.D., the palindrome Sator Arepo Tenet Opera Rotas, known as the Sator Square, remained, scratched on a wall to perplex and delight the archeologists who discovered it and all of us who came after. No one knows exactly what it means, but a number of sites list the meaning as Arepo the sower works with wheels. Even if that’s not the exact meaning, it’s fascinating to see how you can read the words any which way.



In Greek, palindrome means “running back again,” like an echo or a boomerang that comes whizzing back. The Greeks also wrote using a method called boustrophedon, which means “ox-turning.”

Boustro Oxen


In English, we read left to right, line after line, as if we were watching a knife-thrower at the circus. We watch throw after throw until somebody dies or the circus shuts down for the night. In boustrophedon, the Greeks read as if they were at a tennis match, watching the ball served from left to the right, and then hit back from right to the left until somebody won or got ejected from the game. Tennis hadn’t been invented yet, so they used the image of plowing with an ox, moving first down one furrow, then turning around to plow the next row.

If I were to write a blog using that writing method

morf enil tsrif eht gnidaer trats ot evah dluow uoy  

left to right, then turn your plowing eye at the end  

m’I .tfel ot thgir daer ot nigeb dna enil taht fo

afraid you would soon grow tired of it.

Some people find the above paragraph easy to read; others don’t. Of course, that’s true of everything on this blog. But be that as it may or may not, anyone can learn to read words backward. Apparently it’s good for the brain. According to this article at mirrorread.com, it causes new growth of gray matter and increased density. I personally could do with more gray matter, dense or not. I may not have a lot of brains, but people  have often remarked that what I do have is already quite dense; even so, I’m sure if I work on it I can get even denser.


So this year, I plan to get as thickheaded as possible, read more in both directions and teach my old ox of a brain new tricks, one furrow at a time.



28 thoughts on “Words that go back and forth

  1. Love it…love the academics, but I knew you had me hooked once I caught myself working so intensely to move through the form ‘backwards’, but then again, it’s all about perspective. A toast to sdaehkcihT erehwyreve! naD…though sometimes I go by Dna. Freud is looking up my phone number right now (ha!).

    • Thanks for your comment, Dan. It’s fun to stretch our brains a bit. I was at your blog a while ago and tried to comment, but WordPress wouldn’t let me. Couldn’t comment on a single site this evening. Sigh…

      • I guess my letter to them worked (Ha!), Kidding.
        It does get a little flaky from time to time. Appreciate the fact you wanted to say something. I always look to hear what’s on your mind. So pleased to be on the Planet at the same time as you. Dan

  2. Enjoyed learning the new word, and the thought that it could excite the mind to read backwards. We Hebrews read and write from right to left, and especially in this computerized world, it is a challenger to include a Latin language word in a Hebrew text… sometimes the computer gets confused even if we don’t. And you might be interested to know that the Hebrew word for past, ‘haya’, van be read from right to left or left to right and it remains the same. I was looking for a word like that in English, but haven’t found one yet… though I’m sure there must be.

    • I did know that Hebrew is read from right to left. My students who speak Arabic tell me their language does as well. In Japan, it’s common to read from top to bottom starting at the left and moving right.

      We have a number of palindromic words in English: noon, kayak, deed, bob, and pop to name a few. Languages provide us with endless delight.

  3. As a teen, I loved to write backwards. I found another young woman who did this as well, and we had a great time writing notes to each other this way. I hadn’t thought of that for a long time. Thanks for the memory!

    • There’s a lot of research showing that young children learning to write, first learn the shape of the letter and aren’t always concerned with the orientation, so they write them in different directions. I noticed this with my grandchild.

    • Some people are born being able to read backwards and speak backwards. In spite of being a backwards kind of person, I can’t speak backwards. I wish I could.

      I am an ELL (English language learning) instructor and thoroughly enjoy my students.

  4. I love the Greek ox-turning version with pictures – it flows beautifully and effortlessly. When I tried to read the English version, however, I thought my eyes were going to pop out of their sockets!

    Will have a look at the mirror website. I could do with some dense grey matter too!

  5. This was thoroughly enjoyable, especially the illustrations and explanation of the Greek ox-turning version of reading. My eyes nearly started spinning in my head when I tried to read the Greek ox-turning English sample, but it was rather fascinating to force my eyes (and brain) to accept what was on the page. I obviously became more and more dense every moment.

    It even prompted me to click on the link for the Practice Makes Cortex article, although I have to admit I skipped most of the text, and just looked at the pictures. I suppose all that ox-turning had worn down my gray matter. Thankfully, I read ALL of the text of your blog post, which had me remembering one of my favorite palindromes from way back when: Never odd or even. I can still remember the fascination when I learned that sentence could be read either way (with or without density).

    Very interesting stuff, YS. You’re probably one of those cool teachers. The ones everybody is always smiling about, and telling stories about, because you find creative ways to make any subject interesting. You make learning fun again. Well done, Madam. 🙂

    • I think it’s good to force ourselves to try new things or at least do old things in a new way. I like your favorite palindrome – there’s something very satisfying in being able to read something from both directions.

      I try to be creative in the classroom; although sometimes it’s harder than others.

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