Thursday 16 April 2009

Language & Linguistics (4): Palindrome and Palimpsest

As teenagers, we used to jump on our bikes, laden with rolls of black paper and gold starry sticks called 'astral' to go brass rubbing in our local churches. We always had to ask permission from the local incumbent before we embarked on these expeditions: some churches were kept locked and others charged a fee for brass rubbing. This was largely in the days before folk realized how much damage could be done to the Medieval brasses. These days one can still enjoy brass rubbing in centres where there are facsimiles. It is, of course, not quite the same (you miss out on the experience of settling down on the floor or rush matting in the churches); but in terms of heritage, it makes sense. I grew up in rural Norfolk, where there were some marvellous brasses. I became interested in the symbolism of the animals - often greyhound-like dogs - who lay at the feet of their masters or mistresses.

In the course of brass rubbing, I encountered a new type of brass: the palimpsest, which was not embedded into the stone church floor because it was two-sided, and the modern viewer was intended to see the back as well as the front. I had always assumed that the word 'palimpsest' referred to the fact that a brass was double-sided: it seems, however, that it actually refers to a brass that has been re-worked (possibly at a later date, and possibly on the reverse side).

The word 'palindrome' finds its etymology in the Greek word, palindromos (running back again): the word 'palimpsest', from palimpsestos, is made up of 'palin' (again) and 'psestos' (rubbed smooth). Apparently, a large number of 16th century brasses were found to be 'palimpsest' when they became detached from their slabs. You might find, for example, a knight on one side and a priest on the other.

All this is really a preamble to my current thinking about something else that is two-sided - the palindrome. You will find a good website of interesting examples here. A famous early palindrome, the Christian 'Sator Square' in Latin, dates from the destruction of Herculaneum.

My friend and fellow-blogger, Wendy Webb, has created a new poetry form, a kind of double sonnet in which the second half or stanza is a reverse of the first. Wendy's form is called the 'palindromedary', and a number of examples have appeared in her magazine, 'Tips for Writers'.

It has just occurred to me that a 'palindromedary' conjures up (in my mind, at least) a picture of a marvellous mythical creature, not unlike the 'pushmi-pullyu' of Doctor Dolittle!

Speaking of doctors, and on a serious note, there is a kind of palindromic rheumatism in which the patient has joints that swell up and subsequently settle down. The joints go through the following palindromic phases:

normal - abnormal - normal.

What is your favourite palindrome? Do we have any examples in languages other than English? Or examples from poetry?
  • Read a poem about a palindromedary here.
  • For Greg Garrard on teaching poetry, see 'The Lines of Beauty' (THES 9 April 2009 p.24), containing his vision of a poetry 'program that would visualise any selected poem through a palimpsest of readings'...

1 comment:

Marc Latham said...

Very interesting and informative Caroline.

I did some research on the Green Man foliate heads found in many Medieval churches, and found that they were often twinned with the Three Hares motif.

For example: