The Best Examples of Palindromes in the English Language

Explore the history of palindromes and some of their best — and weirdest — uses

What do the words “madam,” “mom,” and “rotor” have in common? They are palindromes: words, phrases, verses, sentences, or a series of characters that read the same both forwards and backwards. A palindrome can be as short as three characters ("mom," for instance), or as long as an entire novel. Take this multi-sentence palindrome as an example:

Are we not pure? “No, sir!” Panama’s moody Noriega brags. “It is garbage!” Irony dooms a man — a prisoner up to new era.

From "dad" to "kayak," you likely encounter many palindromes in your daily life. In addition to everyday speech, this feature of language has applications from literature to classical music composition to molecular biology. 

The History of Palindromes

“Palindrome” derives from the Greek word palíndromos, meaning “running back again.” However, the use of palindromes was not exclusive to the Greeks. Since at least 79 AD, palindromes appeared in Latin, Hebrew, and Sanskrit. English poet John Taylor was hailed as one of the first palindrome writers when he wrote: “Lewd did I live, & evil I did dwel.”

In the following centuries, palindromes increased in popularity, and by 1971, the Guinness Book of World Records began to officially recognize the world's longest palindromes. Between 1971 and 1980, the winner grew from 242 words to 11,125 words. Today, palindromes are celebrated on Palindrome Days, when the numerical date is itself a palindrome (e.g. 11/02/2011).

With palindromes, the same rules of punctuation, capitalization and spacing don’t apply. For example, the word “Hannah” is a palindrome, even though both “H’s” aren’t capitalized. And what about words that spell another word backwards, like “live” becoming “evil”? That’s called a semordnilap, which happens to be itself a semordnilap of palindrome.

Record-Breaking Palindromes

You're probably familiar with some of the most famous palindromes in the English language, like "Madam, I'm Adam" and "a nut for a jar of tuna." How many of these lesser-known, record-breaking palindromes do you know?

The longest palindromic English word, according to the Guinness Book of World records: detartrated. The Guinness Book of Records bestowed the honor of longest English palindrome to detartrated, which is the preterit and past participle of detartrate, meaning to remove tartrates, or organic compounds. Unlike most English palindromes, which usually have seven letters or fewer, this has 11— impressive, except that Finnish palindromes easily rival it, with two having 25 letters. 

The longest palindromic English word, according to the Oxford English Dictionary: tattarrattat. Coined by James Joyce in his 1922 novel Ulysses, the word is an onomatopoeia. It has been used to describe the sound of someone knocking on a door.

The most recognizable palindromic poem: “Doppelgänger” by English poet James A. Lindon. At the poem’s midway point, each line is repeated backwards. The use of the device has literary significance: the concept of a doppelgänger involves a ghostly reflection of oneself, and the palindromic structure means that the latter half of the poem serves as a reflection of the first half. 

The best palindromic place name: Wassamassaw. Wassamassaw is a swamp in South Carolina 

The best Finnish palindrome: saippuakuppinippukauppias. This is the Finnish word for a soap cup trader, one of the longest palindromes in the world

The longest palindromic novel: Lawrence Levine’s Dr. Awkward & Olson in Oslo. In 1986, Lawrence Levine published the 31,954-word Dr. Awkward & Olson in Oslo. Like Stephen’s letter, the novel is primarily gibberish.

The history-based palindrome: Able was I ere I saw Elba. This palindrome related to French leader Napoleon Bonaparte’s exile to the island of Elba. 

The best album title: Satanoscillatemymetallicsonatas (Satan, oscillate my metallic sonatas). In 1991, American rock band Soundgarden included this bonus CD with some editions of Badmotorfinger, their third studio album. 

The longest letter: David Stephen’s Satire: Veritas. Published in 1980 as a monograph, the letter is 58,706 words long.

The ancient Roman palindrome: In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni. Like the Greeks, the Romans were also fans of palindromes, and this translates to “we enter the circle after dark and are consumed by fire,” which was believed to relate to how moths circled a flame.

Palindromes in Math, Science, and Music

Palindromic strands of DNA can be found in molecular biology, and mathematicians may look for palindromic numbers that have unique properties. Classical, experimental, and humorist composers have integrated musical palindromes into their work, including Joseph Haydn and Weird Al Yankovic. Hadyn's Symphony No. 47 in G Major was nicknamed "The Palindrome" since the "Minuetto al Roverso" and the Trio are both written so that second part of each piece is the same as the first, only backwards.