By Henry Lane Hull
As I was planning to write this item, the Elder B.E. alerted me that we are in the midst of a palindromic series of dates. As one who enjoys playing with words and numbers I was enthralled. As we learned in school, a palindrome is a series of letters forming a word or a number that goes in the same direction to each end from the middle number or letter. Today being July 13, would be 71317; yesterday 71217, tomorrow 71417.
These palindromic dates occur each century in the teen years and the next one will come along in August 2018. In other venues I watch for palindromic mileage on the car odometer, which obviously comes more frequently than with the date variety. Ben Johnson, the English playwright who was a contemporary of Shakespeare, first coined the term, borrowing from the Greek roots, “palin” for again and “dromos” for direction. Other writers since his time also have been fascinated by the usage of palindromes.
In language we have Napoleon Bonaparte’s reputed saying, “Able was I ere I saw Elba”, referring to his forced exile to the Mediterranean island of Elba in 1814. Ironically, from Elba the following year he set off on his “Hundred Days”, which led to his ultimate defeat in the Battle of Waterloo. In his case that palindromic existence was better than what ensued when he was taken to the island of Saint Helena in the South Atlantic for his final exile.
Another famous linguistic palindrome refers to the Panama Canal, “A man, a plan, a canal, Panama.” Many palindromes are commonplace without our thinking of them, such as “racecar,” “stressed desserts,” or perhaps less common, “Never odd or even.”
Palindromic one-upmanship is a challenging game. The late Gene Yeney from Wicomico Church was proud that his surname was a palindrome and spent much of his life learning more such words. Truly, he never met a palindrome he did not like. His neighbor, the late Dick Hillier from Remo, a crossword guru of the highest caliber, tried the opposite, namely to avoid palindromes, always eschewing them in his speech. Both now are long gone and I do not know if they ever took sides in a debate over palindromes, but witnessing such an event would have been quite entertaining.
Occasionally, in advanced crossword puzzles a clue will refer to the answer being a palindrome, a sure way to pique and maintain my interest. Happy Palindromic Week to all!
Diverting from palindromes, this column completes a third of a century of Excerpts, namely 33 years and four months. The Rappahannock Record is approaching its 101st anniversary, thus approximately one in every three issues has contained an Excerpts item. Twice when on leave of absence, I returned with columns for the time away, thereby having an item for every week since March 15, 1984.
The Ides of March was not an auspicious date for Julius Caesar, but happily for me the scenario has been different. As I write this column on a palindromic date, with it to be published on another, I am grateful for the opportunity to compose thoughts for publication each week and thank the publishers, editors and readers for their encouragement over this past third of a century.
As I always told my students back in the days of academe, the best way to learn to write, is simply first to read and secondly to write. All the book-learning, classroom instruction and computer practice are valuable only when one confronts the pen and paper, or perhaps today the keyboard and computer (for antiquarians, the typewriter) and puts thoughts down for the benefit of oneself and others.
Writing is great fun and I have enjoyed writing every column over the past third of a century, and look forward to next week beginning the second third of a century.