A time when backward and forward are the same

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, February 20, 2002

On Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2002, at 8:02 p.m., something unique in the history of timekeeping will occur for precisely one minute: time will be the same backward and forward.

Reading the date and time digitally according to a 24-hour clock, that moment will appear as 2002 2002 2002 (the time 20:02, the day and month 20/02, and the year 2002). It's a palindrome; that is, it reads the same in either direction.

Nothing like this will ever happen again, because such moments as 30:03 30/03 3003 are not possible on the 24-hour system, which only goes as high as 23:59.

Nor has anything like this ever happened before.

(True, as some have observed, we could say that a millennium ago there was the symmetrical moment 1001 1001 1001 – 10:01 a.m., 10 January 1001. But that predates modern time measurement and notation. In fact, it was only 300 years ago that clocks with second hands were even invented.)

I want to thank you coffee companions who brought this numerical palindrome to my attention. Interestingly, this moment also generates another palindrome, written according to the way I usually make date and time notations: 2002 0220 2002 (the year first, followed by month and day, and then time– the most obvious difference being the middle group where I reverse day and month).

Whether temporal or textual, numerical or alphabetical, palindromes have long held a fascination for Mary Anna and me.

There was the time Mary Anna was out shopping and deliberately drove an extra kilometre or two out of her way just so, when she pulled up to the house, the odometer would read 123432.1.

On another occasion we were driving somewhere when all of a sudden Mary Anna said excitedly: "Look, look! The odometer is reading 414441.4!"

We could almost measure our lives by the palindromes on our car's odometer.

Personally, I prefer the alphabetical kind. Some of the more obvious one-word palindromes are "eye," "noon," and "rotator." According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the longest one-word palindrome in the English language is "tattarrattat," with 12 letters.

But I'm most amused by the multi-word ones, such as "Madam, I'm Adam," attributed to Mark Twain. Or by what is arguably the most famous English palindrome, "A man, a plan, a canal: Panama," written by Leigh Mercer to honor U.S. president Teddy Roosevelt for bringing about the Panama Canal.

One set of palindromes consists of words that read the same upside down as right side up: for example, capitalized "NOON" and "SWIMS." Another set consists of mirror-image words which, when written vertically, read the same in a mirror as in the hand: for example, "HOW," "AWAY," and "TOMATO" (in capital letters).

Closely related to the palindrome is chiasmus. Chiasmus is the reversal of the order of words in parallel phrases of a literary work, speech, etc.

The title of Mardy Grothe's 1999 book is a good example of this kind of wordplay: Never Let a Fool Kiss You or a Kiss Fool You: Chiasmus and a World of Quotations That Say What They Mean and Mean What They Say (Viking/Penguin).

Grothe also hosts a great web site, chiasmus.com. Here are two gleanings from its pages:

About John Glenn – first American astronaut to orbit Earth, a U.S. Senator, and 36 years later the oldest to orbit Earth again – David Shribman wrote in the Boston Globe: "Glenn, who has lived the life of his times, is having the time of his life."

Grothe cites this chiasmus by the late gossip columnist Walter Winchell: "Money sometimes makes fools of important persons, but it may also make important persons of fools."

Most of us are familiar with the chiasmus made famous by John F. Kennedy: "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country."

Then there's this old example about the role of journalism: "To comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable."

By the way, can any of you readers work the word "coffee" or "Coffee with Warren" into a humorous palindrome or chiasmus?

© 2002 Warren Harbeck

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