Palindrome: Able was I ere I saw Elba

Benjamin Barrett gogaku at IX.NETCOM.COM
Thu Sep 12 17:16:04 UTC 2013

There is a palindromic-like video going around right now called "Translators are a Waste of Space" at

Benjamin Barrett
Seattle, WA

Learn Ainu!
On Sep 12, 2013, at 8:23 AM, ADSGarson O'Toole <adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM> wrote:

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> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       ADSGarson O'Toole <adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM>
> Subject:      Palindrome: Able was I ere I saw Elba
> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
> 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
> anagram:
>          "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,
> Garson

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