Palindromes 101. The Magic of Symmetrical Expressions in Film.


Definition: A palindrome is a word, phrase, number, or sequence of characters that reads the same forward and backward, disregarding spaces, punctuation, and capitalization. The term originates from the Greek words palin, meaning ‘again,’ and dromos, meaning ‘way’ or ‘direction.’ This concept has fascinated linguists, mathematicians, and puzzle enthusiasts for centuries.

Palindromes have a rich history that dates back to ancient times. One of the earliest known palindromes is the Latin phrase “Sator Arepo Tenet Opera Rotas,” (meaning Arepo the sower (sator) guides (tenet) the wheel (rotas) with skill (opera)) discovered in the ruins of Pompeii.

Arepo the sower (sator) guides (tenet) the wheel (rotas) with skill (opera) - palindrome

This palindromic square reads the same in multiple directions—horizontally, vertically, and in reverse. In medieval Europe, people often used palindromes in magical and religious contexts, believing they possessed mystical properties.

Linguistic Palindromes

Linguistic palindromes appear in various forms. Single-word palindromes like “racecar” and “radar” are straightforward examples. Other examples:

  • Pop
  • SOS
  • Civic
  • Level
  • Rotor
  • Kayak
  • Madam
  • Rotator
  • Deified

Phrase palindromes are more complex and often ignore punctuation and spaces. Famous examples include “A man, a plan, a canal, Panama” and “Madam, in Eden, I’m Adam.” These phrases showcase the playful and intricate nature of palindromic construction. Other examples:

  • Was it a car or a cat I saw?
  • Eva, can I see bees in a cave?
  • Mr. Owl ate my metal worm
  • A Santa lived as a devil at NASA
  • No lemon, no melon
  • Do geese see God?
  • Never odd or even
  • Step on no pets
  • A nut for a jar of tuna
  • Yo, Banana Boy!
  • Dammit, I’m mad!

Mathematical Palindromes

In mathematics, palindromic numbers exhibit the same symmetry. For instance, 121, 1331, and 12321 read the same forwards and backward.

Below, you can see a palindromic matrix where the sum of all numbers in any direction equals 65.

Sum 65 magic square palindrome

Cultural References

Palindromes permeate popular culture in various ways. Writers and poets use them to add layers of meaning or complexity to their work.

Puzzles and games challenge participants to think creatively and rigorously about palindromes.

People’s fascination with palindromes extends to music and film, where symmetrical structures or themes are often explored, as already hinted at above.

Palindromes in Film

Palindromes in films are more than just a linguistic curiosity. They symbolize duality, symmetry, and cyclic themes within the narrative. Palindromes appear in titles, character names, and thematic elements in cinema. Here are some examples:

Movie Titles

Tenet (2020): Christopher Nolan’s Tenet is a sci-fi thriller in which time manipulation is central to the plot. The title itself is a palindrome, reflecting the film’s theme of time inversion.

Madam, I’m Adam (2006): The title of Tomas Sheridan’s short film is also a palindrome.

Character Names

Aviva in Palindromes (2004): Todd Solondz’s dark comedy-drama Palindromes features a protagonist named Aviva (a palindrome), played by eight actors of different ages, races, and genders during the film. This makes it seem like the character is reborn and reinventing (reassembling?) again in each new scene, giving the narrative a cyclical nature to it.

Secondary character names like the trucker/assassin Bob and Otto are also palindromes, highlighting the film’s exploration of identity and the cyclic nature of life.

Thematic Elements

The room numbers where we first meet Neo (room 101) and Trinity (room 303) in The Matrix (1999) are palindromic. This could suggest the matrix’s cyclical nature, revealed when Neo meets The Architect, and we see he has been there multiple times before.

However, that’s just my interpretation, and I don’t know if it’s intentional. It might just be that the room numbers are symbolic and an allusion.

Short Films

Symmetry (2014): French filmmaker and graphic designer Yann Pineill’s short film is a palindromic narrative that flows seamlessly whether watched forwards, from the middle, or in reverse. And it’s one of the most impressive films I’ve seen when it comes to editing and blocking to explore this theme.

All elements, including music, sound, and movement, make sense in both directions, highlighting the complexity and skill behind its creation.

Closing Thoughts,

Palindromes are a fascinating language, mathematics, and culture intersection where symmetry and complexity meet.

Whether in ancient texts, modern puzzles, music, scientific studies (did you know even our DNA has palindromic sequences?), or movies, palindromes continue to intrigue and inspire us.

So maybe think of ways to use palindromes to create subtext in your next film?

Up Next: What is Repetition in Film?


  • Jan Sørup

    Jan Sørup is a indie filmmaker, videographer and photographer from Denmark. He owns and the Danish company Apertura, which produces video content for big companies in Denmark and Scandinavia. Jan has a background in music, has drawn webcomics, and is a former lecturer at the University of Copenhagen.

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