IT'S BEEN A BIG PAIR of years for international word watchers. First, those of us with an eye trained to read both backwards and forwards by palindromes such as U Nu and Lon Nol found themselves fascinated last year by the Kanak uprising against the French in New Caledonia. (With a last name like mine, I take a particular interest in palindromes.)
Then, the Filipinos acted out a Manila morality play in which Cardinal Sin joined Cabinet Secretary Joker Arroyo, leftist eminence grise Nemesio Prudente and Foreign Minister Pacifico Castro to install a president, Corazon Aquino -- whose name translates from the Spanish as "No Heart Here."
Jokes of this nature verge, I acknowledge, on the low farce of punnery and having fun with people's names. As Diuguid more often than not is mispronounced DoGood, and as my wife is a social worker, I know the danger. Still, I plead for license in one category, almost divorced from palindromy: those people who pursue their careers as if driven by their names.
I will further limit myself to one subcategory, those who publicly relate, who communicate. To the classic case, Larry Speakes, I would add: former Louisiana governor David Treen's press secretary, Sally Nungesser; perennial French minister Michel Jobert's press person, Raoul Delaye; regional IRS spokesman Scott Waffle; Lon Nol's fellow Cambodian and mouthpiece for the High Command, Col. Am Rong; White Sands testing range spokesman Gabe Briliante' and Dr. Ray L. Birdwhistell, an authority on non-verbal communication.
Palindromy is quite is quite another manner. The laureate is a Briton, Leith Mercer, author of the classic "A man, a plan, a canal, Panama." As for me, I remain a drab bard of this reciprocating poetry -- although I once confected a rather involved palindrome out of Manama (Bahrain), rather than Panama. Looking back on it, the effort does not bear examination, from either direction.
But the backward efforts of others do. For instance, this latest palindromic epoch began as China gave the United States a giant panda and the U.S. response was a musk ox. Linguist Richard H. Timberlake III artfully summed up that episode with: "Dada is a Nixon ox in Asia, Dad."
The U.S. diplomatic corps then produced a couple of declarations that can be read at least two different ways.
Ambassador Robert E. White, who was to find more time for word games after tweaking President Reagan's White House on Salvadoran policy, cabled -- "Flo: Get a date. Golf."
Middle East specialist Richard H. Nolte's was particularly gratifying to me: "No, I no sleep till Lew Diuguid well lit peels onion." Such language suggests there are wordsmiths within the fudge factory after all. On the other hand, both palindromists are now ex-ambassadors.
In 1980, when the Carter administration voted against Israel at the United Nations then thought better of it, Edward Scher sent this succinct note to The New York Times -- "To last, Carter retracts a lot."
But perhaps the most worldly, if least international, to find its way to me was: "Ma is a nun, as I am." My wife Sally, who by now tends to tut-tut palindromes, nevertheless asked who authored it. I had to reply, "Sal, anon alas."
I did take heart in the next generation. A daughter, who in her teens thanked me for not naming her Ada, had a crisp answer to whether she found variety in her college lunches: "Ate feta."
Her Pop was proud. It had all the concinnity of the ghastly duple, "Lepers repel," another whose author is unknown to me.
I feel special affinity for palindromic names, such as that of fellow journalist Noel Leon, or the French magistrate, Leon Noel (no relation). Then there was William James Sidis, whose last name lives on in the Sidis fallacy, the medical term for the phenomenon that his brief career epitomized. He was a prodigy who enrolled in Harvard at, you guessed it, age 11, but then started a downhill slide from which he never rose.
I had taken as auspicious an event in 1984 U.S. elections, otherwise sadly irreversible. While lined up in my northern Virginia precinct, steeling my Democratic resolve to vote against a Republican candidate for supervisor named Egge, I found that the woman in front of me was a Noon.
But I wander too far. Back to the Kanaks and then on to Manila.
Like most palindromes, I suppose, I tend to look at history in 11-year segments. The last 11 years had been bountiful, then the Kanaks set up a provisional government in New Caledonia and denounced the colonialists in Paris.
Whether or not Francois Mitterrand is pro-palindrome is disputed. Palindromy has been out of fashion in Paris since 1945 and the execution of the traitor Pierre Laval.
The Polynesian language comes close to duplicating Laval, incidentally, with lava-lava. But its meaning, calico loincloth, suggests this may be coincidental. Better is another Polynesian contribution: kayak.
As the New Caledonia crisis zigs and zags, attention must be paid to how the Kanak Front handles the matter of the would-be nation's proposed name, currently Kanaky. We will be urging a slight modification: i.e. Kanakei.
But in Manila, who could ask for anything more? Ferdinand Marcos' party that flew off into the East included Marcos' heir apparent, Restituto Marcos.
The Philippines revolution also has given us Assemblyman Homobono Adaza. While this does not spell backwards and forwards the same way, nearly every syllable does: omo, obo, ono, and so on(o). The last time the Philippines saw the likes of it was in the 1950s, when the president was Diosdado Macapagal -- which translates roughly as God-given Trick Payment.
Consider too the Filipino military: important names included not only rebellious Capt. Juan Vicente Resurreccion but a commander of the 49th Scout Ranger Battalion, Maj. Saulito Aromin.
They would do well to keep an eye on Marcos loyalists, who were reported to be rallying in the north to overthrow the revolutionary government. Their leader: the hardbitten Gen. Tomas Dumpit.