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Secret Lives of Words: 'Tenet,' ABBA, and tattarrattat

By Rick LaFleur Columnist

Having taken up wordsmithing at the tender age of 11, when I signed up for my first Latin class, it’s unsurprising that my heart skipped a beat when I first heard about the movie “Tenet,” released to streaming last month. Not only was it another sci-fi puzzler from writer-director Christopher Nolan, who had given us “Inception” (2010) and “Interstellar” (2014), but its title was in origin a Latin word, tenet from tenere, “to grab hold of or grasp.” A TENET is a belief we hold onto with TENacity and whose truth we TENaciously mainTAIN.

ABBA on the Dutch TV show TopPop, 1974.
Kiev National Opera House, Ukraine.

The language of the ancient Romans has contributed about 100,000 words to our English vocabulary—like the noun VOCabulary itself, which means literally “what we call things,” from Latin vocare/to call (source also of VOCation, our professional “calling”). But unlike conVOCation (calling together), reVOKe (to call back), and other such derivatives from vocare, TENET is one of several thousand common English words that have come from Latin letter-for-letter, with no spelling change at all (some others are abdomen, benefactor, campus, deficit, quota, and victor).

But, even more interesting for word-nerds like me (and maybe you, since you’re still reading this!), is that TENET is palindromic, meaning it’s spelled the same backwards and forwards. The term palinDROMe derives from a Greek word that means “running/dromos back again,” like the chariot-racing track Greeks and Romans called a HIPPoDROMe (from hippos/horse, which gives us also HIPPopotamus, literally a “river-horse”).

We have lots of these back-and-forth words in English, including short ones like mom/dad/eye/pop/noon/kayak/level/radar. Then there’s my favorite 80s pop band ABBA, and names like Anna/Ava/Bob/Eve/Hannah/Otto. Some longer ones include deified/racecar/repaper, and “tattarrattat,” coined by James Joyce in Ulysses for the sound of a knock at the door, maybe the longest palindromic word in English.

There are palindromic phrases too, like “never odd or even,” the beer “Regal Lager,” and the well-known “a man, a plan, a canal, Panama,” one of dozens created by British palindromist Leigh Mercer (1893–1977). Mercer even gave us the sentence palindromes “Madam, in Eden I’m Adam” and, one for Roman historians, “Draw, O Caesar - erase a coward!” When Barack Obama was first running for President in 2008 and I spotted a bumper sticker with just the name OBAMA, I instantly thought, That’s the reverse of amabo, Latin for “I will love,” and I created my own palindrome (which has since appeared on t-shirts and such): OBAMA AMABO, “I’ll love Obama!”

Another favorite comes with a personal anecdote. Our classics department at the University of Georgia has for decades administered a studies abroad program in Rome. One summer years ago a student named Elba, notorious among the faculty as a clingy busybody, decided to enroll. When the program’s director returned at summer’s end and I asked how the classes had gone, his immediate reply, in a mock somber tone, was “Able was I ere I saw Elba” (an allusion to Napoleon’s exile attributed to one J.T.R. in an 1848 issue of The Gazette of the Union).

But back to Nolan’s film: not only is its title palindromic, so too are major elements of the plot. The story’s characters race back and forth through time; actions are repeatedly reversed; fired bullets can be unfired and “inverted” back into the weapons that shot them.

The screenplay’s thematic elements, settings, and even character names were directly inspired, it turns out, by a 2,000-year old palindromic square found on two buildings in Pompeii and elsewhere across the Roman Empire from England to Syria. The so-called SATOR-ROTAS square looks like this, its five stacked five-letter words forming a Latin sentence:






Reading left to right, top to bottom, Sator Arepo tenet opera rotas means “The sower Arepo holds the wheels through his effort.”

The SATOR square on a door in Grenoble.

But look again: the square reads exactly the same starting with the bottom row and reading the words right to left and upwards: ROTAS reversed is SATOR, OPERA becomes AREPO, etc. And the same is true reading each vertical column down, and left to right, and then also in reverse, reading the fifth vertical column up, then the fourth, etc., so the same sentence recurs in four different directions, an astonishing palindromical square! It’s no wonder that mystics in ancient times believed the inscription had magical, apotropaic qualities.

Regal Lager label, early 1900s.

Let’s take a quick look at each of the sentence’s five words. Sator, connected to SEmen/inSEminate, meant literally a “sower” of seed. But it also meant “progenitor”: the 1st-century B.C. epic poet Vergil had called the sky-god Jupiter hominum sator atque deorum, “begetter of men and of gods,” and early Christians likewise identified the SATOR square’s “sower” as God, creator of the world who with divine might steers the wheels of the universe. Noticing that the inscription included only the eight different letters found in Pater noster, “our Father,” the opening words of the Lord’s Prayer, later Christians devised a cross-shaped anagram employing those letters, with the extra A’s and O’s to the side, representing Alpha and Omega, the beginning and end.

The noun sator inspired the name of one of the “Tenet” film’s major players, the villainous Russian oligarch Andrei Sator. Of the inscription’s other four words, Arepo, seemingly a Roman name like Cicero and Cato, is the name Nolan gave the Spanish artist who forged a Goya drawing Sator had purchased. TENET - TEN and TEN in reverse - is the organization whose operatives must traverse time to save the world from total destruction by Sator’s deadly Plutonium 241 “algorithm” device.

The square’s next word, opera, refers first to the effort involved in completing a task, then to the task itself, and, from the 17th century onward, to an OPERatic musical production. The film’s opening sequence takes place in the Kiev opera house and references to opera recur later in the course of the movie’s two-and-one-half hour run-time.

Finally, Latin rota/wheel, source of ROTary/ROTate/ROTor, perfectly suits the storyline’s ROTational plot; the form of the word seen in the square, rotas, turns up in “Rotas Security,” the agency charged with protecting the warehouses where Sator had stored his art.

In a strange coincidence, the evening my wife Alice and I watched “Tenet,” the day after New Year’s, 1-2-21, was a palindrome, 1221. And our recent, thankfully peaceful presidential inauguration occurred on a rare seven-digit palindromic day, 1202021/1-20-2021, the first inaugural palindrome date in U.S. history, according to recent articles in the Farmer’s Almanac and USA Today, and the last until 1-20-3021, a millennium from now.

In fact we are, as I write, in the midst of a 10-day series of such dates beginning with that 1-20-21 and ending with 1-29-21; in December we’ll have the nine-day run from 12-1-21 through 12-9-21, as well as 12-11-21, and finally Alice’s birthday, 12-22-21! This flurry of palindromic dates can occur only in years ending with -11 and -21, so if it seems you’ve been going in circles lately, the reason may be, not just pandemics and politics, but palindromics too.

It turns out that palindromes can involve not just reversals of numbers and letters but even of words, like “is it crazy how saying sentences backwards creates backwards sentences saying how crazy it is?” If all this is making you just a little bit crazy, here’s a timely tenet to susTAIN you: “live on time, emit no evil.” But wait – tattarrattat - is that a fat rat at my door?

Rick LaFleur is retired from 40 years of teaching Latin language and literature at the University of Georgia, which during his tenure came to have the largest Latin enrollment of all of the nation’s colleges and universities; his latest books are The Secret Lives of Words, a collection of 60 of these essays, expanded with more than 250 illustrations, and Ubi Fera Sunt, a lively, lovingly wrought translation into classical Latin of Maurice Sendak’s classic, Where the Wild Things Are. Rick and his wife Alice live part of the year in Apalachicola, under the careful watch of their French bulldog Ipsa.