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.”
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.