The word ‘aibohphobia,’ itself a palindrome, means ‘fear of palindromes’. For centuries people have enjoyed playing with words and phrases that read the same forwards and backwards. What immortal hand or eye could frame such verbal symmetry? The palindrome can include proper names (e.g. Hannah, Pip, Bob), place names (e.g. Glenelg, Civic, Arrawarra) and even sequences of numbers that can be read the same in either direction. But the palindrome is most commonly associated with amusing phrases, for example:
A man, a plan, a cat, a ham, a yak, a yam, a hat, a canal-Panama!
A Toyota! Race fast, safe car! A Toyota!
Are we not drawn onward to new era?
Egad! An adage!
Go hang a salami, I’m a lasagna hog.
No, son! Onanism’s a gross orgasm sin – a no-no, son!
Oprah deified Harpo.
Yawn…Madonna fan? No damn way!!
And here’s my favourite palindrome: ‘Dubya won? No way, bud.’
But who started this crazy craze in English? Why, none other than Elizabethan playwright and poet Ben Jonson. Out of his humour, the bankside bard and sometime pal of Shakespeare coined this term from the Greek words palin, meaning ‘again’ and dromos, meaning ‘way,’ though he never claimed to have invented the form. The oldest known palindromic gem was found in graffiti form at the unearthed city of Pompei, buried in ash in AD 79. The linguistic nugget consists of a sentence in Latin: ‘Sator Arepo Tenet Opera Rotas,’ which translates as ‘the sower Arepo holds works wheels’. But the palindrome is even older than Roman civilisation. Hebrew, Tamil and Ancient Greek have featured many a palindrome, and there were complex palindromes in Sanskrit poetry.
In Finland, palindrome names are common, e.g. Olavi Valo, Emma Lamme, Sanna Rannas, Anni Linna, Asko Oksa. In molecular biology there are palindrome sequences. Mathematics has palindromic numbers and even palindromic prime numbers. Palindromic dates have kept numerologists busy for centuries. Palindromes even feature in music. Haydn’s 47th Symphony in G Major is known as ‘the Palindrome’. Works by Bartok, Stravinsky and Webern feature palindromic sections. Popular music by Paul Simon and the Stone Roses contain palindromic tracks, solos and lyrics. Palindrome-named ABBA had a hit with palindrome-titled SOS. Miles Davis and Black Sabbath separately released palindrome-titled albums called Live Evil. But the most entertaining palindrome-titled song has been ‘Bob’ by Weird Al Yankovic, a parody of Dylan’s ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ consisting entirely of rhyming palindromes, with the video featuring Weird Al in Dylan-mode displaying them on cue cards.
Never one to be outdone in barrier-pushing (perhaps patriotically taking his revenge on the Anglo-Saxon invader), literary giant James Joyce is credited with the longest palindromic word in the Oxford English Dictionary with ‘tattarrattat’. It comes from Ulysses, published in 1922, and has quite an onomatopoeic effect, meaning ‘a knock on the door’. An even grander effort in English has been the effort of two authors David Stephens and Lawrence Levine, each of whom has published a palindromic novel; respectively Satire: Veritas (1980) and Dr Awkward & Olson in Oslo (1986).
There exists a variation to the palindrome known as the ‘semordnilap’. This is ‘palindrome’ backwards. The concept has other names, including ‘volvogram,’ ‘heteropalindrome,’ ‘revergram,’ ‘mynoreteh’, ‘reversible anagram’ and ‘anadrome’. Examples include ‘was/ saw,’ ‘stressed/ desserts,’ ‘god/ dog,’ ‘deliver/ reviled,’ ‘straw/ warts.’
But I think the crowning glory of palindromes in recent times has been the 2008 effort by Massachusetts journalist Alex Beam, writing in the Boston Globe, when he created a special category, the Sarah Palindrome. Alex opened the linguistic floodgates to Globe contributors, beginning with this humble offering:
all I saw eye Wasilla
evil deified live
Mac’s hot Palin made Veep? – Peeved am, nil apt. Oh, scam!
Nevetheless, I believe that UrbanDictionary.com takes the prize for defining this sub-sub-species of wordplay, by describing the Sarah Palindrome as ‘a word phrase that makes no sense in either direction’.
What else can be said? Party boobytrap.
Some historical figures are lumbered with misleading eponyms. Take the Roman dictator, Julius Caesar, who was not born by caesarean section. How did the myth come about? The Latin verb caedere means ‘to cut’. Babies delivered by what we now know as ‘C-section’ were known as caesones. That’s one theory. Another myth culprit is that colourful chronicler Pliny the Elder, who made reference in his work to a – not the – Julius Caesar, as having been ab utero caeso (cut from the womb) though historians have sought in vain for some evidence of this. As for Big Julie himself, such a medical procedure would usually be performed post-mortem to rescue the foetus from a deceased mother, but the future dictator’s Mum enjoyed a long and healthy life, well into her son’s adulthood. So that one goes into the linguistic false-origin basket.
St Cyril is another victim of nominative mis-derivation. He did not write in Cyrillic script. Rather that script was invented and shared by Slavic disciples, and is today used by Russian, Serbian and Bulgarian writers. It’s an oddity, as the two saintly brothers, Cyril and Methodius, were Greek orthodox, taking their missionary zeal to colder climes. In an even less saintly connection, St Basil the Great never inhabited or designed a basilica. It’s from the Greek word basileios stoa, a king’s council chamber. Basilicas weren’t churches but Roman public buildings in the forum of a town. Only later did the religious connotation attach to this word. Born by a form of Caesarean (his mother gave birth in Caesarea, in AD 330), he was a theologian, bishop and monastic pioneer, but never an architect or builder.
Another misapplied name belongs to Hermes, the Greek god. He was no hermit, nor did he live in a hermetically sealed cave. Instead there was a deity known as Hermes Trismegistus (thrice-greatest Hermes) who allegedly penned the Hermetic Corpus, a clutch of sacred texts. This alternative Hermes may well have been a conflation with the Egyptian god Thoth: a deity much preoccupied with magic, and a patron of astrology and alchemy. His worshippers and priests often lived secluded and secret existences, keeping their potions and charts from prying eyes, in hermetically sealed environments.
Another ancient Greek, the philosopher Epicurus, was no epicurean. The word we use denotes a connoisseur of foods, wine and sensual pleasure. Poor old Epicurus had some bad press, thanks to early Christian propaganda. He was in fact a stoic, the exact opposite of a pleasure-seeker. He didn’t hold pleasure as the ultimate good. Instead he propounded the doctrines of ataraxia, meaning ‘serenity’ and ‘freedom from fear’ as well as aponia, ‘absence of pain’ as the apogee of happiness. Far from being an orgy enthusiast, he considered excess and overindulgence as inimical to the attainment of both ataraxia and aponia. If he had known about epicureans, Epicurus would have held them in very low esteem.
There’s an odd chain of names that seem the same, and have spawned disparate movements unconnected by theory or practice. Jacob fathered twelve sons, one of whom had a Technicolor dream-coat, but he had no connection with Jacobeans, Jacobites or Jacobins. Son of Isaac and grandson of Abraham, he had a brother called Esau (an hairy man) whom he disinherited, and then chose to rename himself Israel. His twelve sons sired the twelve tribes of that ancient race. But as anyone who can sing the Tim Rice lyrics will know, Jacob did not have a son named James. Another, much later, monarch in a northern land did. James IV of Scotland married one of Henry VIII’s sisters, and his seed in time begat James VI, who became James I of England. This latter reign became known as the Jacobean era, thus distinguishing it from that of its predecessor Elizabeth I, as Jacobus was the Latin form of James. But skip ahead a generation, a civil war, a regicide and a republic, the next sovereign called James, booted off the English throne for being—among other things—a papist, did not go quietly into forced redundancy. He and his heirs tried their respective hands at some rebellions and wars known as the Jacobite risings. Things didn’t work out in his favour, or for his putative heirs. As for the Jacobins, they didn’t have a James between them. A political party in the lead-up to the French Revolution, they were named instead for their meeting place, a convent in the Rue St Jacques (the Latin word Jacobus again). Many origins of the same name, but none for the same reason.
As for Moses, of the stone tablets and the historical founder of Mosaic Law, he never made a mosaic in his Biblical life. Cecil B De Mille and Mel Brooks have chronicled slightly different interpretations of the legend but neither filmmaker felt tempted to portray the great man creating pretty patterns with pieces of pottery, glass or stone. Rather this word derives from a pagan tradition, relating to the Muses, via the Medieval Latin word musaicum, which meant ‘work of the Muses’. Perhaps mosaic art was a form of dedication to said Muses. There’s also an association with the ancient temples erected to the glory of the nine goddesses of inspiration, known as mouseion in Greek, from which we derive the word ‘museum,’ which could easily have been decorated with murals of a mosaic nature. So, as Queen Victoria might have said when hearing about the construction of the Victoria and Albert Museum, Moses can frown from Heaven and declaim ‘we are not a museum.’
Anyone who has heard the John Williamson song ‘True Blue’ knows that this is a quintessentially Aussie expression. Right? Wrong. The phrase dates from at least medieval times in England, when blue referred to—as it still does—loyalty to the Crown and to other authorities of veneration, such as one’s liege lord. Blue was the colour of fidelity. It was also the colour of constancy, perhaps in reference to the sky, always blue, or even the sea. The Oxford English Dictionary cites an entry for ‘true blue,’ meaning ‘faithful, staunch and unwavering in one’s faith, principles, etc.; genuine, real’. And ‘real’ also meant ‘royal,’ a first cousin to ‘loyal’. So the song gets that part right, but as a transplanted sentiment, not indigenous to southern shores.
Samuel Butler (1613–1680), poet and satirist, wrote a mock-heroic narrative poem called Hudibras. It has echoes of Don Quixote in its characterisation, but mostly this is a sustained dig at religious sectarianism. At one point in the poem, Butler writes ‘For his Religion it was fit/ To match his Learning and his Wit/ ‘Twas Presbyterian true Blew’. Later this little phrase ‘true blue’ became a rallying cry for English political parties, before finally being adopted by the Tories as their own. In that sense it meant staunchly conservative, orthodox and loyalist. I’m not sure this is quite what John Williamson had in mind when singing an anthem to ideals of egalitarianism and mateship, in a land where bosses as well as workers knock off for a smoko and share a natter about the footy.
In Australia, we have a notion of classlessness that has only ever been wishful thinking. Since the earliest moments of European settlement we’ve had class divisions, albeit without title and imperial rank. We used to call these ‘haves and have-nots’; now we’re more likely to debate about who’s in what kind of elite and who are the real elitists. A worker on strike might be considered true blue but so might the worker who refuses to submit to collective action and sides with his or her modern-day liege lord. The term ‘true blue’ works both ways. Even if ‘true blue’ is sometimes synonymous with the ‘true believer’ of Labor politics, there are plenty of free-market true believers and climate-change-denial true believers to balance the blue equation.
It’s more confusing in the USA, where blue is the colour of left-of-centre political parties and red belongs to the Right. That goes against the traditions of democracies since the French Revolution, and even the USA’s own history. It looks like the colour palate became confused during the Reagan era, at the end of the cold war. Perhaps that great thaw turned the ice blue into pink. In Britain, blue has never been a Labour colour but in Australia and the USA it is, for different reasons. True blue it is not.
‘Battler’ has been a part of English since we borrowed it from the French during the early mediaeval period. But towards at the end of the nineteenth century in Australia it began to acquire idiosyncratically antipodean connotations, suggesting someone who slogs away against the odds, receiving little reward for effort but showing grit and integrity in the process. Henry Lawson appears to have been the first to record this word in print, in his story ‘Settling on the Land,’ collected in While the Billy Boils (1896): ‘Then I sat on him pretty hard for his pretensions, and paid him out for all the patronage he’d worked off on me, and called him a mug straight, and walked round him, so to speak, and blowed, and told him never to pretend to me again that he was a battler.’ The word has been applied to paid workers, unemployed or itinerant workers, housewives, farmers, stockmen, swagmen, punters and (not surprisingly) soldiers. It has also developed class connotations, with the ‘battler’ at the bottom of the pecking order. One looks for a battler toiling for little reward in a working class suburb rather than dining in a five-star restaurant. The word has even been applied to prostitutes. An 1898 edition of the Bulletin (founded 1880, ceased publication 2008), which published much of Lawson’s work, states that ‘a bludger is about the lowest grade of human thing, and is a brothel bully… A battler is the feminine’. But the modern use of the word has moved on from that connotation. Mostly it’s a term used by politicians like John Howard, eager to evoke images and nostalgia for an apparently simpler time. In the same vein, it’s ripe for picking up either Old Left voters or New Right voters, anti-church, pro-church, or whatever dichotomy of ideals such a term might be loaded with, depending on the politician’s context.
‘Bludger’ is another loaded term, almost exclusively Australian until J K Rowling decided it would be a great word to use for Quidditch. A ‘bludger’ is a form of bludgeoner, which is precisely the sense in which it’s used in the Harry Potter books. A bludgeon is a short thick club. In nineteenth-century England, ‘bludgeoner’ became slang for a thief or thug who readily used violence. Transported to the southern hemisphere, it shortened to ‘bludger,’ and meant someone who used a bludgeon while living off the earnings of prostitutes, which we would now call a ‘pimp’. As the term entered wider usage, it came to mean anyone lazy or morally degenerate who did not scruple to live off the efforts of others. White-collar workers would often be on the receiving end of this abusive term, when resented by manual labourers and artisans for seemingly living off the hard toil of others. In his hilarious novel They’re a Weird Mob, John O’Grady has a character explain the custom of the ‘shout’ to the main character, a young Italian immigrant: “When it comes to your turn, return the ‘shout’. Otherwise the word will spread that you are a ‘bludger’, and there is no worse thing to be.”
It’s no irony that the term ‘dole bludger’ first made its appearance in the Bulletin. As most people would know, the ‘dole’ (as in the United Kingdom, from ‘doling out’) refers to unemployment benefits, which are paid by the state as part of a welfare safety-net system. In Australia since 1991 the dole has been known as ‘Newstart’. There is a long tradition of resentment by a large portion of the public to anyone receiving a benefit or allowance without reciprocal effort on the part of the recipient. So part-time actors, writers, artists and sportspeople without a regular pay cheque either have to rely on family and friends for financial support or to take on low-paid or alternative-career jobs. If they collect state benefits to supplement their underpaid endeavours, they risk facing the odium of resentful taxpayers who bandy the term ‘dole bludger’ and call them parasites. Who wields the blunt instrument now? It’s an odd journey for a humble little word.
Are some words so offensive they should not be uttered? Depends who you are, and how sensitive you are. This might seem self-evident but not everyone takes an impartial view of taboo.
It’s an odd little word, this adjective that also dresses up in noun clothing. It originated among Polynesian people of the South Pacific, either on the island nation of Tonga or else Fiji (where it’s spelled ‘tabu’), and means forbidden or prohibited. There is also the Māori word ‘tapu’. Master navigator James Cook described this phenomenon in his pithily named work A voyage to the Pacific Ocean: undertaken by command of His Majesty, for making discoveries in the Northern Hemisphere: performed under the direction of Captains Cook, Clerke, and Gore: in the years 1776, 1777, 1778, 1779, and 1780: being a copious, comprehensive, and satisfactory abridgement of the voyage. Ah, those were the days. Our all-too-brief contemporary book titles cannot compare. In his title-heavy tome, Cook writes: “Not one of them would sit down, or eat a bit of any thing… On expressing my surprise at this, they were all taboo, as they said; which word has a very comprehensive meaning; but, in general, signifies that a thing is forbidden.”
The tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden was taboo. Incest is taboo in most societies; so is cannibalism. Other so-called perversions (i.e. deviations from the norm) that are considered taboo include paedophilia, necrophilia and bestiality. In most traditional societies homosexuality is still taboo, as are adultery and racial intermarriage. Murder is taboo in the so-called ‘civilised’ west, as is slavery. Abortion remains a much-debated topic, subject to moral dilemma and conundrum. Profanity is commonly taboo in religious societies, along with other imprecations that might incur the displeasure of higher powers. In Islamic art and architecture, depicting the human form is taboo; while in an earlier movie-making epoch, actors portraying Jesus Christ used to be photographed with their faces obscured. Jesus was taboo. In the Old Testament, even the name for God was taboo, hence a need for the Tetragrammaton (see earlier blog entry ‘As If’).
Today, references to ethnic, racial and religious backgrounds remain taboo. There is the n-word. There are words considered insulting to gays, lesbians, Jews, Italians and Catholics. There are taboos associated with disability and medical conditions. The phrase ‘political correctness,’ almost always used pejoratively, first appeared during the 1980s in the USA. It was an attempt by social reformers to persuade speakers to abandon prejudicial terms by substituting a whole new vocabulary for expressions that might be considered hurtful or discriminatory. Time has mellowed the more contentious phrases such as ‘differently abled’ (in place of ‘disabled’) and ‘non-waged’ (in place of ‘unemployed’), while overly ambitious innovative terms have been exploited by comedians (e.g. ‘differently logical’ for ‘wrong’ and ‘living impaired’ for ‘dead’). The original intention of reformers was merely to redress seeming imbalances in English that were apparent in certain ‘isms’ (e.g. ‘sex-ism’, ‘age-ism’, ‘able-ism’, ‘weight-ism’). Of these, a heightened awareness of sexism has had the most lasting impact.
As ever, taboo is best illustrated by Monty Python.
Voice Over: The BBC would like to apologize for the poor quality of the writing in that sketch. It is not BBC policy to get easy laughs with words like bum, knickers, botty or wee-wees.
We retain our social taboo areas, which provide edgier comedians with fertile material: topics such as menstruation, sex and defecation. The euphemisms we deploy to mask our taboo words are far more various than the plain descriptors. Whether it’s our coy allusions to time-of-the-month, number ones, powdering one’s nose, marital relations or nature calling, we’re invoking the taboo.
In mid-2011, the conservative government of the State of Victoria passed legislation empowering police to issue an on-the-spot fine to any citizen seen or heard using indecent language in a public area. Who says it’s indecent? Oh, there’s a list provided, in case the officer is uncertain. This has to be the most pusillanimous and futile attempt to impose outdated puritan values on a society for whom oaths and cursing amount to almost a dialect. This is a society where ‘bloody’ is known as the Great Australian Adjective. Not long ago, a national tourism campaign was launched by the Federal Government with the slogan ‘Where the bloody hell are you?’ The Victorian Government’s absurd legislation sparked public outrage on a large scale, expressed in the form of a ‘Fuckwalk,’ aimed at challenging police who would be prevented from issuing fines to the citizenry en masse.
Leaving frivolous insults to our maturity aside, what are our genuine contemporary taboos? Nobody mentions ‘class’ anymore. It’s considered divisive; also all the parties are chasing the same voter demographic. Both sides of politics seem to regard any mention of tax increase as taboo. Likewise, budget deficits must never be mentioned, nor taxing the rich, nor tinkering with indexed pensions.
Gosh, golly, jeepers and as the Irish say, feck.