Author’s Scavenger Hunt for Palindromes Turns Gnu Dung into Gold

Watson Adventures Do Geese See GodA roll of Tums changed William Irvine’s life. OK, maybe that’s overstating the case slightly, but as a child he noticed that Tums spelled backwards made another word—and thus a master curator and creator of palindromes was born.

Decades later, he has assembled his favorites into a new book, his own anthology of palindromes: Do Geese See God? 

The booked is packed with miniature masterpieces, and Steven Guarnaccia’s droll illustrations provide the puckish context. “Yo, banana boy” is entertaining in itself, but the image of a bikini-clad woman summoning an apprehensive banana delivers an extra kick. He even finds a way to give classics like “A man, a plan, a canal: Panama” an unexpected twist.

The palindromes come in many varieties. There’s the koan-like pronouncement: “Never odd or even.” The zoological description: “Gnu dung.” There’s the absurdist injunction: “Spit Qtips!” The unusual memoir: “I, Zany Nazi.” And the very short R-rated stories: “Egad! No bondage!” “Traci tore erotic art.” “Sex at noon taxes.” “A slut nixes sex in Tulsa.” 

Now, as anyone who has done our scavenger hunts knows, we love word play. (We’ve been known to ask hunters to find mummies who don’t have much in common but have Tutankhamen.) So you can trust us when we say that reading  this book is a funny, mind-bending adventure. In search of more fun, we asked Irvine to recommend his favorite books about words and word play. Here’s his list, with our comments:

The American Language by H.L. Mencken 

A classic from 1919, American Language explores the formation of American English and its key differences from British English. If you’ve ever wondered why you say “tomayto” and I say “tomahto,” Mencken has the answer.

Watson Adventures Miss Thistlebottom's HobgoblinsMiss Thistlebottom’s Hobgoblins: The Careful Writer’s Guide to the Taboos, Bugbears, and Outmoded Rules of English Usage by Theodore Bernstein

The English language is full of rules, and Ted Bernstein is here to banish them forever—much to the chagrin of fictional hardass grade-school teacher Miss Thistlebottom. This book is for any writer who ever wanted to split an infinitive or end a sentence with a preposition.

Anguish Languish by H.L. Chace

This collection of stories demonstrates, according to the author, “the marvelous versatility of a language in which almost anything can, if necessary, be made to mean something else.” Using something akin to his own made-up language, Chace turns “Little Red Riding Hood,” for example, into “Ladle Rat Rotten Hut” with funny—and surprisingly readable—results.

Fractured French by F.S. Pearson

Here and in his sequel, Compound Fractured French, Pearson collects a series of humorously illustrated French-English puns that rely more than a little on employing a truly mangled French accent. For example, what do the French say when the light’s out in the bathroom? “Jeanne d’Arc.” Or, how do you say “there are mice in the river”? “Mise en scène.”

Language on Vacation by Dmitri Borgmann

A comprehensive guide to word- and letter-play, including palindromes, antigrams, anagrams, pangrams, word squares, transpositions, and more.

Watson Adventures Remarkable Names of Real PeopleRemarkable Names of Real People by John Train

Train tracked down some of the most outrageous, most unbelievable real names of real people. Meet people like Ima and Ura Hogg, Silence Bellows, and Warren Peace. 

Mots Heures: Gousses, Rames: The d’Antin Manuscript by Luis d’Antin van Rooten

Read—and chuckle—along as van Rooten takes children’s nursery rhymes, translates them into French, and then translates that French, badly, back into english. You’ve never read Mother Goose’s stories like this before.

Woe Is I by Patricia T. O’Connor

In this “Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English,” O’Connor offers charming, down-to-earth explanations of the rights, wrongs, and maybes of English grammar and usage.