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The Imitation Game Codebreakers Also Created Brilliant Palindromes

The Bletchley Park codebreakers depicted in the film The Imitation Game (this year’s Oscar winner for Best Adapted Screenplay) worked around the clock to crack the secret of Nazi communications during World War II, but they weren’t all about work. They also used their skills for play.

Mark Saltveit, World Palindrome Champion and editor of The Palindromist Magazine, has spent years researching palindrome history and recently published an article on Vocabulary.com where he shares his discovery that many well-known palindromes originated from a bit of spirited competition among the cryptanalysts of Bletchley Park.

It started with mathematician J.H.C. Whitehead’s* “Step on no pets,” which was answered by Peter Hilton’s “Sex at noon taxes,” and ended, after many rounds of increasingly heated one-upmanship with “what many consider the best palindrome ever.” No, not the Panama one, amateurs. This one:

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

The palindrome first came to light when it was the winner of a 1967 magazine contest. The person who submitted it admitted that he had not composed it himself, but had heard it from someone else who had also not composed it. Saltveit has now traced it back to Peter Hilton, the young mathematician who in the film pleads to use information from their partial decryption to save his brother on a naval convoy that is about to be attacked. (That did not happen in real life. Hilton did not have a brother on a naval convoy.)

It makes sense that those with a talent for uncovering meaning from patterns in strings of symbols would have a knack for creating palindromes. After all, a palindrome is just a meaningful string of symbols constrained by a specific type of pattern. In particular, Hilton’s talent for visualizing two streams of information at once came in handy. He composed the champion palindrome in his head, without writing anything down, over the course of five hours, while lying in bed with his eyes closed.

Read more about Saltveit’s research on the codebreakers’ palindrome contest at Vocabulary.com.

*Corrected: The article originally had Alfred North Whitehead, who was J.H.C.'s uncle.

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Big Questions
Where Should You Place the Apostrophe in President's Day?
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Happy Presidents’ Day! Or is it President’s Day? Or Presidents Day? What you call the national holiday depends on where you are, who you’re honoring, and how you think we’re celebrating.

Saying "President’s Day" infers that the day belongs to a singular president, such as George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, whose birthdays are the basis for the holiday. On the other hand, referring to it as "Presidents’ Day" means that the day belongs to all of the presidents—that it’s their day collectively. Finally, calling the day "Presidents Day"—plural with no apostrophe—would indicate that we’re honoring all POTUSes past and present (yes, even Andrew Johnson), but that no one president actually owns the day.

You would think that in the nearly 140 years since "Washington’s Birthday" was declared a holiday in 1879, someone would have officially declared a way to spell the day. But in fact, even the White House itself hasn’t chosen a single variation for its style guide. They spelled it “President’s Day” here and “Presidents’ Day” here.


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Maybe that indecision comes from the fact that Presidents Day isn’t even a federal holiday. The federal holiday is technically still called “Washington’s Birthday,” and states can choose to call it whatever they want. Some states, like Iowa, don’t officially acknowledge the day at all. And the location of the punctuation mark is a moot point when individual states choose to call it something else entirely, like “George Washington’s Birthday and Daisy Gatson Bates Day” in Arkansas, or “Birthdays of George Washington/Thomas Jefferson” in Alabama. (Alabama loves to split birthday celebrations, by the way; the third Monday in January celebrates both Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert E. Lee.)

You can look to official grammar sources to declare the right way, but even they don’t agree. The AP Stylebook prefers “Presidents Day,” while Chicago Style uses “Presidents’ Day.”

The bottom line: There’s no rhyme or reason to any of it. Go with what feels right. And even then, if you’re in one of those states that has chosen to spell it “President’s Day”—Washington, for example—and you use one of the grammar book stylings instead, you’re still technically wrong.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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language
Here's the Right Way to Pronounce Kitchenware Brand Le Creuset

If you were never quite sure how to pronounce the name of beloved French kitchenware brand Le Creuset, don't fret: For the longest time, southern chef, author, and PBS personality Vivian Howard wasn't sure either.

In this video from Le Creuset, shared by Food & Wine, Howard prepares to sear some meat in her bright orange Le Creuset pot and explains, "For the longest time I had such a crush on them but I could never verbalize it because I didn’t know how to say it and I was so afraid of sounding like a big old redneck." Listen closely as she demonstrates the official, Le Creuset-endorsed pronunciation at 0:51.

Le Creuset is known for its colorful, cast-iron cookware, which is revered by pro chefs and home cooks everywhere. The company first introduced their durable pots to the world in 1925. Especially popular are their Dutch ovens, which are thick cast-iron pots that have been around since the 18th century and are used for slow-cooking dishes like roasts, stews, and casseroles.

[h/t Food & Wine]

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