"Imitation Game" codebreakers also played the palindrome game

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Doc, note: I dissent. A fast never prevents a fatness. I diet on cod.

Is this the best palindrome ever created in English? Many think so. (I agree.) But did you know that it was made by the British mathematician Peter Hilton, while working alongside Alan Turing as an "Enigma" codebreaker during World War II? If you've seen The Imitation Game, you might remember Matthew Beard's portrayal of young Hilton. (The film embellishes his true story, giving him a brother serving on a Royal Navy ship targeted by the Germans.)

Even more amazingly, "Doc, note I dissent…" was actually the result of a palindrome competition held by the codebreakers at Bletchley Park (who, as the movie shows, were quite good at UK-style cryptic crosswords, too). The competition was, like the rest of the goings-on at Bletchley Park, shrouded in secrecy until relatively recently. Now for the first time, Mark Saltveit, editor of The Palindromist Magazine, tells the full story of the codebreakers' palindrome game. Read all about on Vocabulary.com here.



18 Comments

  1. Nathan said,

    February 24, 2015 @ 12:09 pm

    No trigger warning for aibohphobes?

  2. Michael Costa said,

    February 24, 2015 @ 1:27 pm

    "Stacy's Super Aware Pussycats" has long been my favorite palindrome, but I think "Doc note" will have to usurp it.

  3. AntC said,

    February 24, 2015 @ 2:58 pm

    I remember (by then Professor) Peter Hilton visiting Christchurch, NZ a few years ago, as guest of the Turing Institute, and reciting "Doc, note …". There was huge interest from the city (two packed-out lectures). He seemed rather miffed that his subsequent illustrious career in mathematics was largely ignored.

    BTW "Doc, note …" is quoted in a letter responding to a Martin Gardner piece in Scientific American (circa 1970's IIRC). Not attributed to the Bletchley team — but perhaps it would have been still "shrouded in secrecy" at that time. If the UK bosses of the spooks weren't so spectacularly stupid [Prof Hilton was particularly eloquent on that subject, including on the shameful treatment of Turing], I wonder how much earlier the Allies might have won the war, or the UK might not have lost the race to exploit commercial computing?

  4. Boursin said,

    February 24, 2015 @ 4:00 pm

    It was Martin Gardner himself who quoted it in one of his "Mathematical Games" columns, in the SciAm for August 1970, pp. 111–112. Gardner says that he took it from the British poet James Michie (1927–2007), who had submitted it to one of the New Statesman's "Weekend Competitions" – and who was a prolific crossword and competition maker, so he might even have come up with it independently (?). Looking the report of this up (New Statesman, 5 May 1967, p. 630) also reveals some other very good palindromes, which however are sadly just too long to type up.

  5. Peter said,

    February 24, 2015 @ 5:20 pm

    @Boursin: as the linked post on Vocabulary.com relates, Michie admitted in correspondence that this palindrome was not his own: "It was told to me by a mathematician, who did not make it up either, in 1944." (Even if we didn't have his word for it, the palindrome is long enough that it seems quite implausible it could have been independently reinvented. The space of English palindromes is surely not that constrained.)

  6. Boursin said,

    February 24, 2015 @ 5:55 pm

    Ah! Like a goddamn mad dog, I didn't follow up on the links above.

  7. maidhc said,

    February 24, 2015 @ 5:58 pm

    Examples from 1873:

    http://www.futilitycloset.com/2010/08/02/a-parcel-of-palindromes/

  8. Mark S said,

    February 24, 2015 @ 9:41 pm

    A 450-letter palindrome:
    http://digitalcommons.butler.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1323&context=wordways

  9. Mark Saltveit said,

    February 25, 2015 @ 1:17 am

    Boursin has identified the first published occurrence of this palindrome ("Doc, note…"); James Michie won the New Statesman contest with it in May 1967. When he wrote his letter to Howard Bergerson they were still observing wartime secrecy, so he said discretely that "It was told to me by a mathematician in 1944, who didn't write it either."

    That mathematician was almost certainly Michie's brother Donald, who worked at Bletchley Park. I have several sources ascribing the original palindrome to Peter Hilton, which I relate in the linked article. (I am the author.) The first was Jack Good, in Jack Copeland's "Colossus" (1993).

  10. richardelguru said,

    February 25, 2015 @ 7:07 am

    I have a soft spot for this long one (quoted from one of my silly radio things):
    ….Or then again there is the famous 'A man, a plan, a canal–Panama!' which some unknown sicko (and a sicko therefore who may, as far as you know, still be lurking in your neighbourhood) extended to:

    A man, a plan, a canoe, pasta, heros, rajahs,
    a coloratura, maps, snipe, percale, macaroni, a gag,
    a banana bag, a tan, a tag, a banana bag again
    (or a camel), a crepe, pins, Spam, a rut, a Rolo,
    cash, a jar, sore hats, a peon, a canal–Panama!
    And, not having THAT much of a life myself, I checked and, apart from the fact that he can't spell 'heroes', it does work letter for letter in both directions!…

  11. richardelguru said,

    February 25, 2015 @ 7:12 am

    Oh and for the benefit of anyone who has no more of a life than I:
    The Palindromes Are Coming! The Palindromes Are Coming!

  12. George Grady said,

    February 25, 2015 @ 2:11 pm

    No discussion of palindromes is complete without reference to Weird Al's Bob.

  13. Mark Saltveit said,

    February 25, 2015 @ 6:40 pm

    ""The writing of a brilliant palindrome is a small miracle, and that, I think, deserves to be honored more than a lot of the stupid and inconsequential things we often celebrate in our culture."

    — "Weird Al" Yankovic

  14. maidhc said,

    February 26, 2015 @ 1:23 am

    More favourites:

    "T. Eliot, top bard, notes putrid tang emanating, is sad. I'd assign it a name: gnat dirt upset on drab pot-toilet." (Alastair Reid)
    Norma is as selfless as I am, Ron. (W.H. Auden)
    Tarzan raised a Desi Arnaz rat.
    Satan, oscillate my metallic sonatas!
    A bot in a macadam was I ere I saw Madaca, Manitoba
    Ban campus motto, Bottoms up, MacNab.
    Darn ocelots stole Conrad.
    Ed, I saw Harpo Marx ram Oprah W. aside.
    Gateman sees name, garageman sees name tag.
    Yo! Banana Boy!
    E. Borgnine drags Dad's gardening robe.
    Sums are not set as a test on Erasmus.
    A new order began: a more Roman age bred Rowena.

  15. sitesuccessfull said,

    February 26, 2015 @ 8:17 am

    Even more amazingly, "Doc, note I dissent…" was actually the result of a palindrome competition held by the codebreakers at Bletchley Park (who, as the movie shows, were quite good at UK-style cryptic crosswords, too).

    thanks zimmer, you are amazing, i like your idea
    Continue!!

  16. Mark Dunan said,

    February 26, 2015 @ 4:21 pm

    Back in my undergraduate days I remember reading that the ancient Egyptians estimated pi to be about 255/81. Knowing that 255 is just one short of 2 to the 8th power and that 81 is nine times nine, that means that 2π (just about as important in math) is sort-of-close to 2^9/9^2.

    Not much to get excited about, but I'd never seen a useful math formula or other number-containing expression that was also a palindrome, so…

  17. Gary Coen said,

    February 27, 2015 @ 1:05 am

    Straw? No, too stupid a fad. I put soot on warts.

  18. Nathan Myers said,

    March 2, 2015 @ 1:37 am

    Maybe it is worth mentioning that 2π is being called τ nowadays, and the symbol itself is palindromic.

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