Mind Games | Arts & Culture | Smithsonian
Current Issue
July / August 2014  magazine cover
Subscribe

Save 81% off the newsstand price!

Mind Games

You say tomato, I say otamot

Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

Don't know about you, but when I see a STARBUCKS sign, I don't think coffee. I think, "SKCUB RATS." A sign above a supermarket called GELSON'S prompts: "SNOS LEG." Maybe I then pause to wonder what skcub rats are, or what it feels like (or worse, looks like) to actually suffer the torment of snos leg.

For some reason, the bored angels that wired my brain included a reflexive read-it-backward function that often requires a deliberate, conscious effort to override. It just comes naturally for me to note that ARCO backward is practically a vegetable—and that MOBIL almost spells "lip balm."

It doesn't end there. For some reason, I have a need to make sense of this nonsense. If "ocra" (which, yes, is "orca" inside out) isn't really "okra," then what is it? (Orcas eat salmon, and salmon cooked with okra is a popular Creole dish, so some convoluted connection arguably may exist.) As for "libom"—look, there's "limbo" hiding inside it—perhaps it's a petroleum-based form of ChapStick? But ChapStick itself is petroleum-based, isn't it? Certainly Vaseline is. If we know nothing else, we know that Vaseline is, repulsively, a "petroleum jelly." Maybe libom is a kind of petroleum marmalade.

This can't be how an intelligent person's mind is supposed to work. (Hold your comments, please.) No, this is what happens when a brain is hijacked by its own proclivity for verbal expression, especially when there is no writing, reading or talking to be done—as when driving alone. Then, while my self (whatever that is) is AWOL, half driving, half listening to the radio and half worrying about this or that, my brain is reading things in reverse. (Burger King backward commands a barbarian to eat again: "Gnik! Re-grub!")

Apparently my brain insists that proper nouns come first, so that a movie marquee advertising In the Valley of Elah yields a Martian salute: "Hale! Fo yellav eht ni!"

But it's not just brand names or titles. I am equally capable of pouncing on ordinary words going about their mundane business. Take "disabled"—which, backward, sounds like a medicine. (I'm talking about Delbasid. Ask your family rot cod if Delbasid is right for you. Go on. Ask.)

And, of course, we know where this leads: to palindromes.

Once you notice that "decaf" backward is "faced," it is but the work of a moment to invent the indignant complaint of a coffee drinker confronting the absence of regular coffee: "I faced decaf! I!!" The same process yields a tailor's cranky opinion ("Knits stink!") and a travel agent's apology to a volcanologist: "Avalon? No lava..."

This is what (in my head, at least) passes for "the life of the mind." It's possible that all this backward nonsense is causally connected to my deteriorating memory. (My wife just reminded me I liked a movie that I don't recall even seeing.) Maybe this habit is a form of verbal yoga—the mental equivalent of twisting myself into the lotus position in order to keep limber.

Is there hope? Is there a way to make me stop observing that Smithsonian backward yields the name of a Gaelic deli (Nainosh Tim's)?

The only way I have been able to cut back is by, instead, anagrammatizing like a cat naif. I mean, fanatic.

Early results are promising.The name of the Mexican food chain Del Taco is easily rearranged to spell "located." Home Depot? "O, the moped!"

But then, there's "rancid." I've been trying for too long to get an alternate six-letter word out of this perfectly reasonable collection of two vowels and four consonants. I want a single word, not "Narc I.D." or "car din." So far I have been unsuccessful, but I'm working on it. Next week I'm planning a long drive in the country.

Ellis Weiner is the author of the mysteries Drop Dead, My Lovely and The Big Boat to Bye-Bye, as well as the co-author of Yiddish With Dick and Jane, Yiddish with George and Laura and How to Raise a Jewish Dog.

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus