Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The word `palindrome'

The word `palindrome' comes from the Greek παλινδρόμους. The word παλιν translates to `again', and the word δρόμους (or δρόμος) to `way' or `direction', and the combination is often translated to `running back again'. In the 17th century, the English poet Ben Johnson connected the word palindrome to the concept of a word or a sequence of words that reads, letter for letter, the same backwards as forwards. The palindrome concept existed long before the 17th century. Reportedly, the first recorded palindromes were written by Sotades in (again) Greece in the third century B.C.

`Palindrome' is an old word, which already appears in some early Greek texts. For example, it appears in the work Timon of Lucian of Samosata.

Lucian was a rhetorician and satirist living in the 2nd century A.D. He wrote more than eighty works, among which Timon, sometimes also translated as The Misanthrope. Shakespeare's play Timon of Athens has been influenced by the work of Lucian.

Timon of Athens was a citizen of Athens during the era of the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta (431 BC–404 BC). He was wealthy and lavished his money on flattering friends. When funds ran out, friends deserted and Timon was reduced to working in the fields. One day, he found a pot of gold and soon his unreliable friends were back. This time, he drove them away with dirt clods. Timon became an angry despiser of mankind, and his reputation for misanthropy grew to legendary status.

He can't have been nice company: a typical sentence of the misanthropic Timon in Lucian's work is `Go your ways, then, Hermes, and take Plutus back to Zeus. I am quite content to let every man of them go hang.' Hermes is the messenger god, en Plutus the god of wealth. In Greek, this sentence reads: ὥστε παλίνδρομος ἄπιθι, ὦ Ἑρμῆ, τὸν Πλοῦτον ἐπανάγων τῷ Διί: ἐμοὶ δὲ τοῦτο ἱκανὸν ἦν, πάντας ἀνθρώπους ἡβηδὸν οἰμώζειν ποιῆσαι. The second word is the occurrence of `palindrome'. It is not translated by `running back again', but clearly something goes back, or returns, here.

Another occurrence of `palindrome' is found in Diogenes Laërtius' book `Lives of Eminent Philosophers', which was probably published somewhere in the 3rd century A.D. Laërtius introduces Aristippus in Chapter 8.

Aristippus was drawn to Athens by the fame of Socrates. He became a lecturer himself, and was one of the first to both pay and charge fees for lecturing. `And on one occasion the sum of twenty minae which he had sent was returned to him, Socrates declaring that the supernatural sign would not let him take it; the very offer, in fact, annoyed him.' In Greek, this reads: καί ποτε πέμψας αὐτῷ μνᾶς εἴκοσι παλινδρόμους ἀπέλαβεν, εἰπόντος Σωκράτους τὸ δαιμόνιον αὐτῷ μὴ ἐπιτρέπειν: ἐδυσχέραινε γὰρ ἐπὶ τούτῳ. The 7th word of this sentence is `palindrome' in Greek. Again, it is not translated exactly as `running back again', but something is returned.

Although the roots of the word `palindrome' are in Greek, the Greek themselves describe the palindrome concept by karkinikê epigrafê (καρκινικὴ επιγραφή; "crab inscription"), or simply karkinoi (καρκίνοι; "crabs"), alluding to the movement of crabs.

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