Palindrome: Able was I ere I saw Elba

ADSGarson O'Toole adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM
Thu Sep 12 15:23:53 UTC 2013

The famous palindrome "Able was I ere I saw Elba" is attributed to
Napoleon Bonaparte who was exiled to the island of Elba. The question
of why a Frenchman would invent an English palindrome has been raised
by skeptics. The early cites crediting Napoleon state that he spoke
the phrase to "Dr. O'Meara", Napoleon's physician during his captivity
on the island of Saint Helena.

The Wikiquote entry for "Napoleon I of France" places the palindrome
in the "Misattributed" section and lists a citation dated March 31,
1866 crediting Napoleon.

Below is an extended excerpt from an article dated July 8, 1848 in the
"Gazette of the Union" crediting a person in Baltimore with the
initials J. T. R. with constructing the palindrome. Also, below is a
citation dated April 10, 1858 attributing the palindrome to Napoleon.

[ref] 1848 July 8, Gazette of the Union, (Golden Rule and Odd-Fellows'
Family Companion), Doings in Baltimore: Ingenious Arrangement of
Words, Quote Page 30, Published for the Proprietors by J. R. Crampton,
New York. (Google Books full view) link [/ref]

Begin excerpt]
Ingenious Arrangement of Words.—We spent part of a day last week in
visiting our subscribers of "East Baltimore"—and very kindly were we
received by them. Many were the pleasant little incidents which
occurred to render our visit agreeable to ourself, and the polite and
attentive carrier who serves the papers in that part of the city—by
whom we were accompanied. Among other things worthy of note, our
friend J.T.R. called our attention to the following ingenious though
somewhat antique, arrangement of words by the "water poet," Taylor:

  "Lewd did I live & evil I did dwell."

He remarked that this sentence had attracted considerable attention,
and that challenges had been frequently given in the papers for the
production of a combination of words, that would so perfectly "read
backward and forward the same," as this line does.

During some moments of leisure, he had produced the following line. In
our opinion it is much more perfect than Taylor's because there are no
letters used or dispensed with, which are not legitimate, as in his,
in the first and last letters—"lewd" and "dwell:"

   "Snug & raw was I ere I saw war & guns."

With the exception of the sign &, which is twice substituted for the
properly spelt conjunction, which it represents, the sentence is
perfect. By the way, there is couched in the sentence a fact, which
many a soldier who has just returned from the battle fields of Mexico
will fully appreciate.

But our friend was not satisfied with this near approach to
perfection, but determined to produce a line which would require the
aid of no sign to justify it as a correct sentence, and the following
was the result of his endeavor:

    "Able was I ere I saw Elba."

Those who are acquainted with the career of Napoleon, will readily
recognize the historical force of the sentence in its application to
that distinguished warrior. Although our friend has cut more than one
figure in the world, in all of which he brought credit to himself, we
know he did not desire to figure in our paper to the extent we have
caused him to do; he merely submitted the above sentences for our
personal amusement, and we take the liberty of giving them to our
readers; challenging any of them to produce lines of equal ingenuity
of arrangement with the same amount of sense.
[End excerpt]

The cite below ascribed the wordplay to Napoleon:

[ref] 1858 April 10, The San Antonio Ledger (Ledger and Texan), Volume
8, Number 16, An Extended Anagram, Quote Page 1, Column 2, San
Antonio, Texas. (NewspaperArchive)[/ref]

[Begin excerpt]
  An Extended Anagram.—It is said that Napoleon, when he was asked by
Dr. O'Meara, if he really thought that he could have invaded England
at the time he threatened to do so, answered in the following extended

          "Able was I ere I saw Elba."

Whether this is true or not, we should like to see a more ingenious
and extended anagram.
[End excerpt]

Earlier citations for the palindrome or for interesting ascriptions welcome.

Thank you,

The American Dialect Society -

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