National Backwards Day

Able was I ere I saw Elba.

 !Day Backwards National of anniversary sixtieth the for piece this writing am I.

That’s right. This day of fun and pranks, National Backwards Day, 31 January, intended to get children in particular thinking creatively and box proverbial the outside, was inaugurated in 3691. Apparently, it was the childbrain of two lady farmers, concocted as they chatted while milking cows.

People are encouraged to do all sorts of zany things front to back, such as putting on your clothes the round way wrong, having dessert before starters or writing a message to a friend in reverse handwriting. I’m joining in by jumbling certain words and phrases, as you may have noticed.

One famous ‘reversist’ is Leonardo da Vinci. He often wrote in what is called ‘mirror writing’ from right to left, as in Hebrew, Arabic and many other scripts. Leonardo’s mirror writing didn’t merely entail putting letters in reverse order, such that mirror becomes rorrim. Oh no, that was too simple for a suineg (genius) of his calibre. He also wrote each individual letter as a mirror image.

He rotated each word by 180degrees on its vertical axis. This entailed not only mirroring the body, known as the counter for letters a, b, o and d, but also changing the direction of the ‘lines’ above and below as in h or y, known as ascenders and descenders, respectively. No mean feat, as you can see from the examples at the bottom of this Museum of Science page. Just think what is involved in mirroring a simple letter t, the first letter there.

Leonardo was left-handed, as am I, and for me many everyday objects and utensils such as scissors are back to front – though I won’t mention that hoary old joke about left-handed screwdrivers.** Perhaps his left-handedness gave him a different lookout on life.

Left-handers are often thought of as doing things back to front or, in slang, arsy-versy. Indeed, cackhanded, originally a dialect term, has since its beginnings conflated being left-handed with being awkward, and the two meanings continue to co-exist today, the anatomical one shading into the derogatory.

Being left-handed was unlucky for Romans, too. The Latin adjective for the left, sinister, could also mean ‘awkward’ or ‘unlucky, unfavourable’. English sinister has piled on the negativity with its connotations of evil and foreboding.

My favourite word in the field of topsy-turviness is widdershins or withershins, memorably used by W.H. Auden in ‘Lakes’ to describe the possible direction of walking round his imagined stretch of water: ‘For, whether they walk widdershins or deasil’ (talking of foreign ministers).


Playing with words, as Auden did, is something people have enjoyed since the earliest times, as far as written records tell us. And one special form of backwards wordplay is palindromes, defined in the Collins dictionary as ‘a word or phrase the letters of which, when taken in reverse order, give the same word or phrase …’

Word palindromes

A handful of shortish everyday words are palindromes, but we mostly don’t note them as such: eye, rotor, madam, refer, kayak, level, and minim. Not to mention the supergroup name ABBA. Why not see if you can spot more? Longer ones are rotator and racecar.

And then, apart from minim, there are the other palindromes from the Collins Word of the Day this week. I must suffer from palindrome-blindness: despite having written the language Malayalam several times, I have never twigged its ‘palindromicity’ (I just made that one up.).

Shall I confess? I had to look the other palindromes up. And looking up alala, terret, hadedah and kelek has taken me on a most interesting virtual journey. I hope you enjoy the trip too.

According to the Guinness Book of Records, the longest single-word palindrome that might have a chance – albeit remote – of occurring outside the pages of a dictionary is the Finnish saippuakivikauppias (a soapstone vendor).  

Phrase/sentence palindromes

Once we move from words to phrases, things turn more complicated – and much more fun.

I think it was my father – he solved a cryptic crossword every day and truly savoured words – who introduced me to what was once the most famous palindrome of all: Able was I ere I saw Elba. It gained renown as a supposed utterance by Napoleon to his physician while in exile on Elba (3 May 1814–26 February 1815). Of course, this never happened. That people should once have believed it demonstrates the limits of credulousness. It was dreamt up by a J.T.R. in Baltimore and launched in a periodical in 1848.

A longer, more modern word-unit palindrome runs as follows:

Is it crazy how saying sentences backwards creates backwards sentences saying how crazy it is?

Those last two sentence-length palindromes keep the same groupings of letters or word boundaries whichever direction you read them in. Another celebrated palindrome gleefully ignores word boundaries: A man, a plan, a canal: Panama!

Then there is even a highly accomplished poetic tweeter who specialises in creating complex verse palindromes. A simple, elegiac one is this, titled ‘Half’, which relies on splitting words in … half and reading the segments left to right:


A mind-bendingly complex one is here. It is a poem that can be reads forwards and backwards over ten lines.

Perhaps the most famous palindrome is the Latin one shown below, the earliest carved example of which dates back to before the destruction of Pompeii (AD 79).


As you will see, not only can it be read backwards, starting with ROTAS, each column can also be read vertically to give the same pattern of five words. The words’ (hidden) meanings and significance are keenly debated by scholars, but one simple potential translation runs ‘The farmer Arepo holds the wheels with care.’ It is not only a palindrome but also an acrostic.

Naturally, I can’t leave this topic without saying a bit about the word palindrome.

No, it’s not named after the multi-talented ex-Python Sir Michael Palin.

The –drome part is related to the –drome suffix of aerodrome, hippodrome, which comes from the Classical Greek noun dromos (δρόμος), ‘race; footrace; racecourse’, and is found for instance also in syndrome.

In palindrome, the –drome part is adjectival here, meaning ‘running’, combined with palin-, meaning ‘back’, so it is literally ‘running backwards’, from the Hellenistic Greek palindromos (παλίνδρομος). The palin- element surfaces again in the fairly arcane words palimpsest, palinode and palingenesis.


** Saying you won’t mention something and then mentioning it is a classic rhetorical stratagem called apophasis. Here are examples of how politicians and journalists often make use of it. ‘Not to mention’ is an everyday example.

By Jeremy Butterfield
Jeremy Butterfield is the former Editor-in-Chief of Collins Dictionaries, and editor of the fourth, revised edition of Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage.

All opinions expressed on this blog are those of the individual writers, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or policies of Collins, or its parent company, HarperCollins.

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