Since this is a leap year, that gives me 53 Wednesdays to present a column topic for those who want to see what’s on the mind of this old English teacher whose age (69), as of June 7, now matches the high-school graduation digits that adorn the sleeve of that faded LCC school jacket that still hangs on a rack in the back corner of the basement laundry room, one I just can’t bring myself to throw out.
And, like a lot of weekly columnists, I tend to spend a lot of time spanning the landscape to find suitable topics to develop. In my weekly search, I try not to ignore giving some thought to my former days in the classroom when I was presenting my lessons on the grammatical nuts and bolts and the literary traditions of what I think is the most beautiful means of expression ever conceived, the English language.
As I planned my curriculum each year, I also tried to expose my teens to some eccentricities of the language. For example, when it came to my yearly commitment to expanding their vocabularies, a commitment punctuated by their keeping a dictionary-entry type vocabulary notebook with every-week additions and weekly testing on Fridays, besides the words I knew would be helpful day to day when they spoke, wrote and read, I also wanted them to learn a few fun quirky words.
For example, I wanted my St. Marys Memorial High School Roughrider teens to know that a hobgoblin, like Shakepeare’s Puck in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” was more mischievous than other apparitions found in literature and movies, and that two unrelated people that bear a striking physical resemblance are doppelgangers.
One word I gave every year was palindrome, a top-five word favorite of mine since I first learned it as a fidgety LCC junior from the best teacher that would ever stand before me, from kindergarten through graduate school, Miss Virginia Moore.
Now, for those of you who may have somehow managed to live your life pretty successfully without knowing much about palindromes, I’ll start your lesson today with an entry from Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary, one that tells the old-school reader that still looks up words rather than simply asking Alexa or Siri spellings and meanings that a palindrome is “a word, verse or sentence that reads the same backward or forward.”
In its simplest form, some examples would be a whole slew of three and four-letter words like did, nun, Bob, deed, noon and toot. Other palindromes display a much higher letter count for single words and, of course, for phrases as well.
Add a fifth letter, and there’s civic, and add a sixth, and there’s the last name of a former student of mine, Doug Leffel. Add a seventh letter, and you just may want to mention all those NASCAR left-turners out there, each competing in a racecar.
As for the longest palindromic word in the English language, according to the website Dictionary.com, is tattarrattet, a 12-letter onomatopoeic beauty coined by author James Joyce in his signature work Ulysses to imitate the sound of a knock on the door.
Of course, phrases qualify as palindromes as long as those letters read the same in both directions, so those can easily surpass the letter count of Joyce’s creation, as in, “A man, a plan, a canal: Panama,” which, in creative fashion, pays tribute to Teddy Roosevelt. It was that original Roughrider-turned President who first thought that a United States-controlled canal that cut across Central America would be an idea worth promulgating from his bully pulpit!
Also considered palindromes are words in a sentence that read the same in both directions, such as “King, are you glad you are king?” And, if you’ve got a little time and want to do some post-graduate study of palindromes, hop on the iPad and Google the poem “Doppelganger,” by James A. London. The entire five-stanza poem reads exactly the same from last word to first as it does from first to last.
For you math lovers, I’ll leave you with a numerical equivalent of a palindrome, one which happened last Groundhog Day, and I apologize for not bringing it to your attention back then. The date for Ground Hog Day numerically was 02/02/2020, and if you think that’s pretty rare, you’d be absolutely right because the last time a date’s numbers lined up in palindromic fashion was 909 years ago in the year 1111.
Gentle readers, take some time today to have a little fun with the language.
John Grindrod is a regular columnist for The Lima News, a freelance writer and editor and the author of two books. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.