Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

A Wordy Weekend, from Crosswords to Palindromes

This weekend, it's time once again for the best crossword solvers to gather in Brooklyn for the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. Meanwhile, in Portland, Oregon, another kind of wordy celebration is going on, as the winners will be announced in the first annual Symmys Awards, given to the best palindromes of the year.

Crosswords on the East Coast, palindromes on the West Coast, all in one weekend. I'll be dropping by the ACPT and will be giving my full report in this space after Sunday's finals. I'm also a judge for the Symmys, even though I can't attend the event that organizer Mark Saltveit (editor of The Palindromist Magazine and a standup comedian) has arranged in Portland on the palindromic date of 3/10/2013.

At the ACPT, all eyes will be on Dan Feyer, who appears to be an unstoppable force after pulling off his third consecutive win last year. On his blog, Dan is downplaying his chances, saying that he'll be a bit distracted because a musical drama he's directing is opening this week in New York. Tyler Hinman, who finished second to Dan the last two years (and who reigned supreme before Dan's ascension), would also like us to believe that his chances are slim.

Who knows? Perhaps this year someone can break through the Feyer-Hinman juggernaut. It could be Anne Erdmann, the third-place finisher for the last three years. Or it could be a young rising star like David Plotkin (fourth place last year) or Joon Pahk (eighth place). And no one is counting out such familiar faces as Al Sanders, Francis Heaney, Ellen Ripstein, or Howard Barkin. As Tyler observes, "the number of serious title contenders very comfortably reaches double digits." And let's not forget about some artificial intelligence at the tournament: this will be the second year that Matt Ginsberg's crossword-solving program Dr. Fill will try to outdo the humans.

At last year's tournament, during the evening festivities, a World Palindrome Championship was held, hosted by ACPT organizer and New York Times puzzle editor Will Shortz (you can read about it here). The contestants had to come up with palindromes on the spot that fit certain constraints, and Mark Saltveit ended up winning when asked to compose a palindrome containing an X and a Z: his kinky, acrobatic entry was, "Devil Kay fixes trapeze part; sex if yak lived."

This year, Saltveit has launched the Symmys, with entrants from around the world submitting their best palindromes in four categories: short palindromes, long palindromes, poetry, and word-unit palindromes. (A word-unit palindrome reads the same backwards and forwards word by word, as in the Three Musketeers motto, "All for one and one for all!")

Saltveit has also managed to organize a panel of judges that he describes as "a murderer's row of wordplay and geek celebrities." Along with Will Shortz and me, the lineup includes Weird Al Yankovic (whose palindromic song "Bob" is a tour de force), John Flansburgh of They Might Be Giants (whose palindromic sympathies are on display in the song "I Palindrome I"), New York Times journalist and editor Jack Rosenthal, and comedians Demetri Martin and Jackie Kashian. I'm honored to be in such company (even if it's virtual company, since we're submitting ballots by email) — as one might say palindromically, "So many dynamos!"

I've been a palindrome buff ever since I was a teenager active in the National Puzzlers' League (which, as I described here, was also when I got to know Will Shortz and the other titans of the puzzling world). I kept up my interest in palindromes even when I was a grad student in linguistic anthropology studying in Indonesia — I'm proud of a palindrome I composed in the Indonesian language: Aku suka rajawali, bapak. Apabila wajar, aku suka. ("I like hawks, sir. When appropriate, I like them.") And back in 2000, I won a political palindrome contest that Slate ran, tied to that year's Super Tuesday primaries. My winning entry was a bit of doggerel called "The Ballad of Bill Bradley." You may recall that Bradley, the basketball player-turned-senator whose nickname was "Dollar Bill," lost out to Al Gore in the Democratic primaries:

I made it, I play as star.
Come, Dollar Bill (lib'ral).
Lo, Democrats say, "Al!"
Pitied am I.

Check back here on Monday for my full report on both the ACPT and the Symmys.

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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.