World War One Vocabulary

September 7, 2022

The critically lauded film The Imitation Game just won an Oscar for Graham Moore's screenplay, adapted from Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges. Crosswords play an important role in the story of the World War II codebreakers, but it turns out they also mastered the art of the palindrome. Palindromist Magazine editor Mark Saltveit reveals a long-hidden chapter of wordplay history.

As The Imitation Game tells us, the Nazis' "unbreakable" Enigma code was cracked by a crew of brainy eccentrics recruited for their mastery of chess and crossword puzzles. After meeting Alan Turing and his colleagues at Bletchley Park, Winston Churchill reportedly said to MI6's Stewart Menzies, "I know I told you to leave no stone unturned to find the necessary staff, but I didn't mean you to take me so literally."

Few are aware that in their spare time, these same codebreakers held a competition that created several of the finest English-language palindromes, those sentences that read the same backward and forward.

Peter Hilton, the young math student who (in the film, anyway) had a brother on a doomed Royal Navy convoy, won by writing what many consider the best palindrome ever:

Doc, note: I dissent. A fast never prevents a fatness. I diet on cod.

Not only is this masterpiece concise, confident and just odd enough to get a chuckle, it remains excellent dietary advice some 70 years later. It took most people 60 of those years to finally accept the futility of dieting.

Incredibly, the young codebreaker did not use paper or pencil while composing his epic palindrome. He simply lay on his bed, eyes closed, and assembled it in his mind over one long night. It took him five hours.

Hilton had a gift for visualization, which served him well at Bletchley. Enigma and other German ciphers were created by combining two sets of binary telegraph codes, one for the clear text message and another for the "key." When they found a "depth" or second message sent with the same machine settings, they were able to mathematically remove the key, leaving two plain text messages jumbled together.

Hilton was the only one even at Bletchley who could picture the two streams in his head, using known or guessed bits of one message to reveal the other, a few characters at a time, back and forth. While the film portrays Enigma as the Nazis' ultimate code, Hilton and his team went on to break a much tougher and more valuable cipher bearing the less cinematic code name "FISH."

Professor Hilton's interest in math began in boyhood when he was run over by a Rolls-Royce. Bored and stuck in a hospital, he started sketching out math problems using his plaster cast as a whiteboard. He went on to a successful career in academia studying homology and topology, the "rubber sheet" branch of geometric math.

The palindromes of Bletchley Park were undiscovered for decades after the war ended. Threatened with execution if they talked, most codebreakers kept mum about their "radio factory" work until the 1990s, when many had already died. The palindrome "Doc, note…" was unknown until it won a British magazine competition in 1967, submitted by the writer James Michie — whose brother Donald had worked at Bletchley. (During the war, Donald often played chess with Alan Turing in a local pub.)

James Michie, who died in 2007, was coy about the palindrome's origin. In 1970, though, he wrote to Howard Bergerson (the great American palindromist) that "It was told to me by a mathematician, who did not make it up either, in 1944."

Professor Hilton's wartime colleague Jack Good finally gave him credit for his masterpiece in the 1993 book Codebreakers: The Inside Story of Bletchley Park. I was unable to get in touch with Hilton before he died, but two math professors who knew him well and worked with him for many years — Ross Geoghegan at SUNY-Binghamton and Jean Pedersen at Santa Clara University — told me the remarkable story.

It turns out that "Doc, note…" was the winner of a palindrome competition at Bletchley Park launched by John Henry Whitehead, a prominent mathematician (and the nephew of philosopher Alfred North Whitehead). He challenged his colleagues to improve upon a well known palindrome:

Step on no pets.

Hilton responded two days later with a great palindrome that did not see the light of day until 1973, and even then anonymously:

Sex at noon taxes.

That set off a maniacal competition that ended with Hilton's triumph. Because of wartime secrecy and the death of most of the principals, though, the other entries (and entrants) have been lost.

Jack Good, who once published a paper as "K Caj Doog" — his name spelled backwards — and Shaun Wiley, known for his skill at composing anagrams and crossword puzzles, were likely competitors. No one knows if Turing, who died in 1954, wrote any at all.

One bit of circumstantial evidence, however, suggests that the Bletchley Park competition was highly productive. Many of the great palindromes we know today were published immediately after World War II in the British journal Notes and Queries by one man, an itinerant engineer from the northwest suburbs of London.

Leigh Mercer sent in 100 palindromes between 1946 and 1953 — about as many English-language palindromes as had been published by everyone on Earth combined in the previous 332 years, since the poet John Taylor wrote the first in 1614 (Lewd did I live & evil I did dwel).

Mercer steadfastly refused to take credit for any of these hundred palindromes, though he later admitted to Bergerson that he penned the most famous specimen:

A man, a plan, a canal: Panama.

His postwar bounty included many previously unpublished gems such as Not New York, Roy went on; Poor Dan is in a droop; Won't lovers revolt now? and Yawn a more Roman way.

Were these forged in the Bletchley Park competition? That remains a secret encrypted by time and death — two ciphers that no one has managed to break.

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