Barry Duncan: Master of Palindromes

NPR has a fun story about Barry Duncan, a man who is obsessed with creating palindromes (those words or phrases that spell the same thing backwards and forwards) everywhere he goes:

In the beginning, Duncan’s palindrome obsession wasn’t much fun. For the first 10 years, he says, it drove him a little crazy. “There was a point in the early ’90s where I thought I would have to be hospitalized,” Duncan says. “I would go to bed thinking I was missing three letters from the beginning of a palindrome and I could work it out, and I just couldn’t. Now I know better.”

Duncan is constantly working out new palindromes — not just on paper, but in his head. Strolling down the street, he spots a “Don’t Walk” sign. He turns the words around in his head and comes up with “Don’t nod” and “Walk Law” — both palindromes. He expands “Walk Law” to “Walk, sir, I risk law.” He identifies the “I” as the middle pivot point and then begins to build it out on each side. “I walk, sir. I risk law. I” leaves that last “I” dangling, so he resolves it by adding one more word: “Won’t I walk, sir? I risk law. It now.”

I think this is just wild:

Once Duncan gets rolling, he can write some of the longest palindromes in the world. He has written palindromes for friends that are 800 words long. He fills up pages and pages of notebooks. He reads them at parties. He writes them for local businesses.

Would you consider being a master palindromist an oddity? Is it a weird hobby? In my opinion, I think the point is to find something you love and continually build on it, as Duncan has clearly done.

My only gripe? One of his palindromes was about LOST:

In 2010, Duncan wrote a palindrome expressing his incredulity that Lost was still airing new episodes on ABC: “No, still? It’s not so long? No, Lost on. Still, it’s on?”

And here I thought we would get along. Anyway, the full story/radio broadcast is here. Read through the end, where Duncan offers advice for reading and building palindromes:

If you are new to reading palindromes, here is the best advice I can give you: Read a palindrome the way you would read anything else. In other words, read it forward. If you insist on reading it forward and backward (thinking that you are being clever and sophisticated by following both ends until they meet in the middle), you may become dizzy and confused. Wait. The time will come.

Some novice readers of palindromes are under the impression that the punctuation in a palindrome must be the same in both directions. These people are misinformed. Pay them no mind.

4 thoughts on “Barry Duncan: Master of Palindromes

  1. By the way, Will Shortz, the New York Times crossword puzzle editor, is hosting a World Palindrome Competition March 16 in Brooklyn, at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. Agee and Connett are in. Barry Duncan has not responded to his invitation.

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