- Caleb Kenna
- Mark Saltveit
After 2,000 years on the linguistic sidelines, palindromes could be making their move into mainstream culture.
A palindrome is a word, phrase, sentence or number that reads the same forward and backward. A familiar example is "Madam, I'm Adam." Fast-forward a few thousand years, and palindromes have moved from fig leaf to big screen.
A documentary called The Palindromists is in limited film festival release. The Hollywood thriller Tenet has a palindromic title and is sprinkled with subtle references to a five-word Latin palindrome known as the Sator Square.
Maybe no one knows more about the ascent of palindromes — and has helped the cause along — than Mark Saltveit. A recent transplant to Vermont, he is the 2012 world palindrome champion.
In a phone conversation with Seven Days, Saltveit noted that he doesn't like to brag, but: "I think I've made myself the world's expert on palindromes. It's not like anybody else is trying."
Saltveit, 58, is a stand-up comedian and freelance writer. (Another area of expertise: the National Football League; he's the author of The Tao of Chip Kelly: Lessons from America's Most Innovative Coach). In August, he moved to Middlebury from Portland, Ore., with his wife, Olga Sanchez Saltveit, who's now an assistant professor of theater at Middlebury College.
Growing up in a family that enjoyed word games, Saltveit said he discovered palindromes as a kid. He and his brothers were delighted when they invented "Tea Poop Eat."
Then they recognized its flaw and became discouraged, Saltveit said. He lost interest in palindromes.
Some two decades later, Saltveit, by then a Harvard University graduate, returned to palindromes during a night of insomnia.
"I picked up the dictionary and [realized], 'Wow, it's a whole lot easier than it used to be,'" he said.
In the mid-1990s, Saltveit started a magazine, The Palindromist, and has been researching the form ever since.
"The history is surprisingly lurid and deep and mystical, with religion and witchcraft and superstition all tied up in it," he explained. "That kind of fascinated me."
Saltveit is currently researching and writing two papers. One is about palindromes that were written in Latin before 1600, a set of roughly 50 that he's cataloguing. The other paper concerns a 58-line poem, also written in Latin, in which each line is an original palindrome. Published in 1608, it was a "political screed" that attacked the ruler of Sweden, according to Saltveit.
"It's an astonishing achievement, if you like that kind of thing," he said. "It fits into a genre I didn't know existed: Latin propaganda poetry."
Palindromes are fascinating to study because they typically appear as a footnote in research, not as the central subject, he added.
"You can't just look it up in the normal, rational, linear, boring way," Saltveit said. "You have to use some kind of guesses and intuition and make random connections between unrelated things."
In addition to researching palindromes, Saltveit writes them. The first requirement of a palindrome, of course, is symmetry. Making sense is a plus; easy to understand helps.
"Whatever sense you can derive from it, that's what makes it great or average," Saltveit said. He cited the famous palindrome "A man, a plan, a canal: Panama," created by British wordplay and recreational mathematics expert Leigh Mercer. It is superior because it's direct and "it makes so much sense," Saltveit said. "You might not even know it's a palindrome."
He also singled out for praise a palindrome written by Peter Hilton, a British mathematician known for code-breaking in World War II. Saltveit likes the work for its humor, and because it offers sound dietary advice: "Doc, note: I dissent. A fast never prevents a fatness. I diet on cod."
Saltveit emailed a sampling of his own palindromes.
"Yoda's sad. Oy!"
"No panic. I nap on."
"Snub dumbo Bob — 'mud buns.'"
"Oh, ocelots impugn. I tan. A meek Alaska yak kayaks a lake, emanating up mist, Ole. Coho!"
"Resoled in Saratoga, riveting in a wide-wale suit, I use law, Ed. I, wan, ignite virago, tar a snide loser."
Saltveit appears in the The Palindromists, which can be viewed online on October 2 as part of the New Jersey Film Festival. He's one of a half dozen or so competitors the documentary follows in advance of and during the 2017 Palindrome World Championships. The event, held in Stamford, Conn., was organized and emceed by Will Shortz, crossword puzzle editor for the New York Times.
At the championship showdown, competitors wrote palindromes within a time limit and adhering to constraints that Shortz imposed. Audience members judged the palindromes, casting their votes with "Wow" or "Huh."
The documentary, Saltveit said, "operates on two levels." For palindromists and fans of palindromes, "it's a must-see and there's no need for discussion." For the non-palindromist set, the movie offers a glimpse into the lives of people who share a particular passion.
"I think it's interesting to see people who are literally following their bliss," Saltveit said. "There's no money in this. It's purely for joy. All of us have this weird little passion that some people think is cool, some people think is impressive and some people think is weird."
Viewers will also learn whether Saltveit defended his 2012 title.
In the documentary, Weird Al Yankovic proclaims, "I think if anything can save our civilization, palindromes can."
If you can find the plot line in Tenet, it seems to have something to do with saving civilization. But if you're looking for a palindrome, watch the documentary.
"I think the average viewer could watch [Tenet] and not get anything about palindromes," Saltveit observed.