Palindrome

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A palindrome - pronounced with the stress on the first syllable and the final 'e' silent, IPA: /ˈpæl ɪn drəʊm/ - is a word or phrase which is the same whether it is read forwards or backwards, i.e., the order of letters is symmetrical about the mid-point. Examples of English words which are palindromes are: noon, deed, level, rotor, madam, radar, refer, redder, and rotator. And examples of well-known palindromic phrases include: 'Madam, I'm Adam', 'Dammit, I'm mad', and 'Able was I ere I saw Elba' (supposed to have been said by the defeated Emperor Napoleon, who was exiled to the Island of Elba in 1814).

The word palindrome may also be applied to numbers which are the same whether read forwards or backwards, and to pieces of music which are the same whether played forwards or backwards. For example, the telephone number 01482 928410 is palindromic, as is the date 20th February 2002 (i.e., 20-02-2002) - indeed on that day some employees remained at work until 2 minutes past 8 o'clock in the evening so that when they clocked off on leaving work, their cards would be stamped with the even longer palindromic number 20.02, 20-02-2002. Many composers have written pieces of music which are palindromes, but perhaps the best-known palindromic piece is the Third Movement (Minuet and Trio) of Joseph Haydn's Symphony No. 47 in G, known as 'The Palindrome'.

The word 'palindrome' comes from two Greek words: πὰλιν (palin, back, backwards, again) and δρομος‚ (dromos, running), i.e., it is a word (or number or whatever) which runs backwards (as well as forwards).


'Palindrome' is one of a small number of English words with a prefix which derives from the Greek πὰλιν (palin). Others include:

  • palinode: a poem in which the poet retracts, i.e., takes back, a claim he has made in an earlier poem, from πὰλιν (palin) and ῳδὴ (ode, song or ode);
  • palimpsest: a manuscript in which the original text has been (erased and) written over by a new text, from πὰλιν (palin) and ψηστὸς‚ (psestos, rubbed smooth), i.e., the manuscript has been rubbed smooth a second time to prepare it for the second text - 'palin' becomes 'palim' before the 'p' which begins the second part of the word, through a process of assimilation;
  • palingenesis: rebirth, from πὰλιν (palin) and γὲνεσις‚ (genesis, coming into being, generation) - the word is used, e.g., by Christian theologians to refer to the spiritual rebirth which comes with the sacrament of baptism, and by Pythagorean philosophers in the context of the doctrine of metempsychosis, i.e., the belief that a person's soul does not die but after his or her death is 'reborn' in another body.

Incidentally, the word 'palimony', i.e., the alimony which may be awarded to a non-married partner on the ending of a long-term relationship, does NOT involve the prefix 'palin-': it is an amalgam of 'pal' (i.e., 'friend') and 'alimony'. As the first of these elements is from an Anglo-Romani [English Traveller] origin, phal 'a partner, confederate, associate, friend' and the second is from the classicalLatin alere 'to feed, support. maintain', this twentieth-century coinage would be regarded with horror by traditional (pedantic]]) etymologists as a 'bastard etymology'.