A palindrome — something that reads the same way forward and backward — is one of the strangest curiosities of written language. There’s nothing inherently special about a palindromic word or phrase, but it’s still fun to find and create them. In this case, the longer the better, and if a phrase makes a little sense it’s even better, which is probably why “A man, a plan, a canal — Panama!” is one of the most famous palindromes in English.
Looking for and creating palindromes is a pastime that goes back thousands of years. In the ruins of Pompeii, archeologists have found first-century engraved palindromes like sator arepo tenet opera rotas (“The sower Arepo holds with effort the wheels”). While it’s a little clunky, that’s the nature of palindromes. You may wonder, what are the longest English palindromes? It turns out, there are a few different ways to answer that question. Let’s dive into the world of reversible words and phrases.
The Longest Palindromic Word In English
The longest palindrome in English isn’t too hard to find when you’re looking at a single word, though sources do disagree on which words count. The Oxford English Dictionary’s longest is the 12-letter “tattarrattat,” which was coined by author James Joyce as an onomatopoeic term for the sound of someone knocking on a door.
Admittedly, not many people say “tattarrattat” on a regular basis, so there are disputes over whether this should count. Thus, there are a few other candidates.
- detartrated — an 11-letter word that the Guinness Book of World Records says is the longest English palindrome, though it also isn’t very common.
- Malayalam — a 9-letter term for a South Indian language, which may or may not count depending on whether you think proper nouns deserve the title.
- rotator, deified, repaper, racecar — once you get down to seven letters, there are quite a few common words that are palindromes.
The Longest Palindrome In English
As hard as choosing a palindromic word is, it’s even harder to decide on the longest palindromic phrase in English. That’s because there are no length limits to a sentence, and people are making up new ones constantly. With a little ingenuity, you can keep coming up with longer and longer phrases that work both ways.
An American computer scientist named Peter Norvig brought it to its greatest extreme by designing a computer program that could automatically generate as long a palindrome as possible. Using the “A man, a plan, a canal — Panama!” palindrome as the base, Norvig’s program added in more and more terms, resulting in a 21,012-word palindrome. It’s not exactly exciting reading. Here’s just a sample:
A man, a plan, a caretaker, a moksha, Lufkin, a jacinth, Gile, Daniell, Ivanov, an odor, a negativeness, a tsarevna, melanomas, an ire…globigerinas, a mon, a leman, Vera, Stassen, Evita, Genaro, Donavon, a villein, a delight, Nica, Janik, Fulahs, Komarek, a ter, a canal, Panama.
Perhaps surprisingly, however, the longest palindrome in the English language was composed by a single person. Author Lawrence Levine wrote an experimental novel in the 1980s called Dr. Awkward & Olson in Oslo, which is a 31,594-word palindrome. While it’s more inventive than the list Norvig made, Levine’s book is not exactly readable. Here’s a small sample, which shows that the book abandons plot, logic and language to accommodate the strict palindrome structure.
“A not secret sin is a sin if laid to rest.”
“Tse rot? Dial. Dinis a sinister cestona.”
Most people who play with palindromes today are working more toward inventiveness than length, which makes the results more interesting. Musician Weird Al Yankovic, for example, made a palindromic song in the style of Bob Dylan called “Bob.” The real challenge of a palindrome is making a sentence that is so natural, you might not even realize it’s a palindrome at first, like “Won’t lovers revolt now?” and “He lived as a devil, eh?”
Other Kinds Of Palindromes
While the first kind of palindrome we think of might be word palindromes, there are a number of others that are fascinating. Here are a few examples of other places you might find palindromes.
- dates — When you’re writing the date out mm/dd/yyyy, there are a number of palindromes that occur. December 20, 2021, for example, was 12/20/2021. Now that Americans are past 2021, it’s a bit more difficult to get a palindrome date, but people who write the date dd/mm/yyyy have plenty more to look forward to.
- poems — Poets have used a mirror style in some poems, repeating the first lines of a poem in reverse order. The poem “Döppelganger” by James A. Lindon uses the reversal of the lines to tell the same story from two different perspectives.
- spoken — In addition to written palindromes, there are words and phrases that are palindromic when spoken aloud, like “funny enough” and “selfless.”
- musical — A number of composers have added palindromic sections in their music, like Joseph Haydn’s “Symphony No. 47” (nicknamed “The Palindrome”). That’s a somewhat extreme example because the entire thing is a palindrome, while other composers might just mirror a small section of a larger piece.
With a certain kind of inventiveness, there’s really no limit to the palindromes you can make. Finding patterns in the world is a natural human instinct, and we’re drawn to the symmetry these words and phrases represent.