زوج عجوز – Why is this a special sentence?

old couple
It is a palindrome. You can read it from right to left or from left to right – the letters are the same.

The sentence means an old spouse/husband.

A palindrome describes symmetry by characters. A palindrome is a word, number or phrase which reads the same backward or forward.


But do palindromes exist in Arabic?

YES – even in the Qur’an!

Try to read the following examples in Arabic first from right to left (as usual) and then from LEFT to RIGHT. The letter combination is the same!

Libya (Remark: As reddit user TiconderogaShill correctly pointed out, this word looks symmetrical but is actually not a palindrome as the first and last letters are different – thanks!)ليبيا
an old spouseزوج عجوز
Dates hang under(neath) a citadel in Aleppo.بلح تعلق بقلعة حلب

The example of the Qur’an: sura al-Anbiya (the Prophets), verse 21:33. Note: Obviously it doesn’t work when the Tashkeel are written.

each floating in its orbit [all (heavenly bodies) in an orbit]كل في فلك

In Arabic, palindromes are called الْقَلْب المُسْتَوي

The term is derived from the verb قَلَبَ (to turn around; to invert, …).

قَلْب grammatically speaking means transposition of letters; reversal, inversion. And مُستَوٍ means regular; straight.



Palindromes are great fun. Since in English we don’t have a root system, they are easier to form.

Some examples in English:

  1. Madam
  2. level
  3. A Toyota’s a Toyota.
  4. Do Geese See God?
  5. Dammit, I’m Mad!

Some examples in German:

  1. Anna; Otto.
  2. Probably one of the longest German palindrome (single word) is: Retsinakanister (a canister of a greek wine).
  3. And the longest palindrome sentence in German: Geist ziert Leben, Mut hegt Siege, Beileid trägt belegbare Reue, Neid dient nie, nun eint Neid die Neuerer, abgelebt gärt die Liebe, Geist geht, umnebelt reizt Sieg.

Palindromes have a long history and go back least to 79 AD – to a graffito at Herculaneum, a city buried by ash in that year. This palindrome, called the Sator Square, consists of a sentence written in Latin: Sator Arepo Tenet Opera Rotas (The sower Arepo holds with effort the wheels).

sator palindrome
source: wikimedia.org

It is really beautiful because there is more than just the reading direction: The letters of the first wird serve as the first letters of the following words: S-A-T-O-R. Therefore, the sentence can be arranged into a word square that reads in four different ways: horizontally or vertically from either top left to bottom right or bottom right to top left.

Linguists also know the term heteropalindrome. It describes a word that can be read in both directions – however, you will get different words when you read it forward and backward. For example: deliver and reviled.


Picture credit: Image by ErikaWittlieb from Pixabay 



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