Sunday, June 08, 2008


One of the most famous palindromes is “ A man, a plan, a canal: Panama”, said to have been coined by one Leigh Mercer in the November 13 1948 issue of Notes & Queries, to capture in one line the story behind the construction of the Panama Canal. I could appreciate this palindrome a lot better after reading the absorbing story of the Panama Canal told by Henry Petroski in one of his books.

This was a rare instance of a palindrome fitting into a context and making sense. The other one was “Able was I ere I saw Elba”, to describe Napolean’s final days.

The Panama palindrome has been gradually expanded further into meaningless sentences.

“A man, a plan, a cat, a canal – Panama!”

“A man, a plan, a cam, a yak, a yam, a canal – Panama!”

“A man, a plan, a cat, a ham, a yak, a yam, a hat, a canal – Panama!”

“A man, a plan, a canoe, pasta, heros, rajahs, a coloratura, maps, snipe, percale, macaroni, a gag, a banana bag, a tan, a tag, a banana bag again (or a camel), a crepe, pins, Spam, a rut, a Rolo, cash, a jar, sore hats, a peon, a canal – Panama!”

As the linked article says, in 1984 , someone used a computer program and the Unix spelling dictionary to generate a 540-word Panama palindrome. It doesn't read so well as the others because the simple program allowed abstract nouns and mass nouns like a ten, a salt and a wax.

This record has been beaten hollow by this 17259-word effort , referred by Tyler Cowen here. It took me a few minutes to even scroll down to get to the bottom of the palindrome.

Enough to give one an acute attack of aibohphobia. the fear of palindromes or words that spell the same backwards- such as aibohphobia.

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