Most people assume that because I graduated college with a degree in journalism and English, that I read two books a week, and that I have a reputation for the occasional sharp turn of phrase, that I must be a wizard with word puzzles. But much to my embarrassment, I’m dreadful with letters when they’re presented outside of a tidy little paragraph. Last night I won my first game of Scrabble in literally five years—and only because I was playing with a teammate. So when I read about a clever crossword puzzle author or another such wordsmith, I’m doubly dismayed and awestruck. Add to the list Barry Duncan, the world’s only “master palindromist.”
Duncan regularly writes palindromes—words or phrases that are spelled the same backward as forward—that are more than 1,000 characters long. One particular palindrome, a climate change-themed composition more than four hundred words long, is the product of nearly 90 pages of notes and months of dedication. Duncan is a savant, you must be thinking, as I imagined reading through Gregory Kornbluh’s intriguing profile of the palindromist in The Believer. Or a polymath. Or curiously, hyperactively dyslexic. Or paranoid schizophrenic. But it turns out that Duncan is just a passionate eccentric with a gift for reading words in both directions at the same time.
Although palindromes are an old type of puzzle, Duncan has done pioneering work in the extremely niche field. Dare I say it? You might even call him a thought leader. And being the expert, Duncan gets to write the terms of the discourse. “[Duncan’s] also identified some guidelines for palindrome-writing,” writes Kornbluh,
One cardinal rule to which he always returns involves “doubling in the middle,” which he calls a “near-fatal error” and the mark of an inexperienced palindromist. As he explained in our first conversation about palindromes, “If I say to you, ‘straw,’ and you thought, well, ‘straw warts,’ that’s a palindrome, but the w is doubled, so it only calls attention to the palindrome. What you want is for some letter to be the reversible hinge. So if you said to me, ‘straw,’ I would think, ‘straw arts.’ And then that w is removable, and it could be ‘strap arts,’ ‘stray arts.’” Still getting my bearings, I asked whether the embargo on a doubled middle was a general rule, something that all palindromists know. “I know it.” But how does he know it? “I know it because I know it, not because there’s anybody who said anything. I know it because it’s been my experience.
The profile doesn’t take a side on whether or not palindrome writing has any practical application for humanity at large, which Duncan seems to understand—and disregard. “I mean, I’m writing palindromes all the time,” Duncan told The Believer, “but it’s really unprecedented, the length of the palindromes, the speed with which I’m writing them. I feel like I’m taking this further and further, but I don’t know where it will lead me.”
Source: The Believer
Image by fdecomite, licensed under Creative Commons.