Able was I ere I saw Elba: 19th-Century Palindromes & Anagrams

Napoleon Bonaparte did not say, “Able was I ere I saw Elba,” although the phrase is often attributed to him. This well-known palindrome – a word or phrase that reads the same backward and forward – first appeared in 1848, 27 years after Napoleon’s death. Someone named “J.T.R.” came up with the Elba line, along with “Snug & raw was I ere I saw war & guns.” (1)

Napoleon on Elba. He did not say "Able was I ere I saw Elba."

Napoleon on Elba by Horace Vernet

According to a periodical published in 1821, the year Napoleon died, there was at the time only one known palindrome phrase in English. Even that was “only procured by a quaintness of spelling in one word, and the substitution of a figure for another: Lewd did I live, & evil I did dwel.” (2)

Anagrams were more common. These are words or phrases formed by rearranging the letters of another word or phrase. In centuries past, anagrams were sometimes thought to have mystical significance. By the 19th century, they were primarily a form of word play. As folklorist H.B. Wheatley wrote, “though anagrams and all kinds of play upon words are in themselves trivial, there is no doubt that, on the presumption of recreation being necessary in a life of toil, the mind will at times find amusement and delight in trifles….” (3)

Georgians and Victorians particularly enjoyed cognate anagrams, in which the anagram is related in some way to the original word or phrase.

Napoleonic anagrams

A number of anagrams were made from well-known names of the Napoleonic Wars.

Napoleon Bonaparte – Bona rapta pone leno (Robber lay down thy stolen goods)

Napoleon Bonaparte, sera-t-il consul à vie? (Will he be consul for life?) – Le peuple bon reconnaissant votera oui (Recognizing good, the people will vote yes.)

Napoleon, Empereur des Français – Un pape serf a sacré le noir demon (A serf pope has crowned the black demon.)

Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington – Let well foil’d Gaul secure thy renown

Arthur Wellesley – Truly he’ll see war

Field Marshal the Duke – The Duke shall arm the field

His Grace the Duke of Wellington – Well fought, K[night]! No disgrace in thee

Horatio Nelson – Honor est a Nilo (Honour is from the Nile)

Prince Regent – G.R. in pretence

Princess Charlotte Augusta of Wales – P.C., her august race is lost! O, fatal news

Patriotism – O, ’tis a Mr. Pit (William Pitt the Younger was a British Prime Minister during the Napoleonic Wars)

Opposition – O poison Pit

French Revolution – Violence run forth

“If we take the letters of the word veto (which was the precursor of the revolution) from La Revolution Française, we shall find that the remaining letters, when transposed, will form the sentence Un corse la finira.” (A Corsican will end it)

La Sainte Alliance (the Holy Alliance) – La Sainte Canaille (the Holy Rabble) (4)

Other 19th-century anagrams

Alterations – Neat tailors

Astronomers – Moon-starers, or no more stars

Breakfast – Fat bakers

Catalogues – Got as a clue

Charades – Hard case

Constitution – It cut onion last

Democratical – Comical trade

Determination – I mean to rend it

Elegant – Neat leg

Gallantries – all great sins

Hysterics – His set cry

Ireland – Erin lad

Lawyers – Sly ware

Masquerade – Queer as mad

Matrimony – Into my arm

Melodrama – Made moral

Midshipman – Mind his map

Misanthrope – Spare him not

Mourning – O, grim nun

Old England – Golden Land

Paradise lost – Reap sad toils

Paradise regained – Dead respire again

Parishioners – I hire parsons

Parliament – Partial men

Penitentiary – Nay, I repent it

Potentates – Ten tea pots

Prerogative – Rover eat pig

Punishment – Nine thumps

Soldiers – Lo! I dress

Solemnity – Yes, Milton

Sovereignty – ’Tis ye govern

Sweetheart – There we sat

Telegraph – Great help

Understanding – Red nuts and gin (5)

Napoleon’s puns

Napoleon wasn’t much given to word play, though he did enjoy naming Claude Victor Perrin (“beau soleil”) the Duke of Belluno. One of Napoleon’s companions in exile on St. Helena related the following anecdote.

It was stated by one of our people that the owner of one of the houses…on the island…said, ‘It is reported that you complain up yonder and consider yourselves unhappy (he spoke of Longwood), but we are at a loss to make it out; for it is said that you have beef every day, while we cannot get it but three or four times a year, and even then we pay for it at the rate of fifteen or twenty pence a pound.’ The Emperor, who laughed heartily…observed, ‘You ought to have assured him that it cost us several crowns.’ Crowns in English, and in several languages of the continent, means also a piece of money.

I observed latterly that it was the only pun I had till then heard from the Emperor’s mouth, but the person to whom I made the remark said he had heard of his having made a similar one, and on the same subject in the isle of Elba. A mason employed in some buildings which were to be constructed by the Emperor’s order had fallen and hurt himself; the Emperor wishing to encourage him assured him that it would be of no consequence. ‘I have had,’ said he, ‘a much worse fall than yours; but look at me, I am on my legs, and in good health.’ (6)

This resilience stands him in good stead in Napoleon in America.

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10 Things Napoleon Never Said

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Caricatures of Napoleon on Elba

How did Napoleon escape from Elba?

Pauline Bonaparte on Elba

Humour in the 19th Century: 200-Year-Old Jokes

  1. The Gazette of the Union, Golden Rule and Odd-Fellows’ Family Companion, Vol. IX (New York, 1848), p. 30.
  2. “On Palindromes,” The New Monthly Magazine and Literary Journal, Vol. II (London, 1821), pp. 171-172.
  3. H. B. Wheatley, Of Anagrams (London, 1862), p. 142.
  4. Ibid., pp. 86, 96-97, 135-137.
  5. Ibid., pp. 140-141.
  6. Emmanuel-Auguste-Dieudonné Las Cases, The Life, Exile and Conversations of the Emperor Napoleon, Vol. II (London, 1835), pp. 164-165.

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[T]hough anagrams and all kinds of play upon words are in themselves trivial, there is no doubt that, on the presumption of recreation being necessary in a life of toil, the mind will at times find amusement and delight in trifles.

H.B. Wheatley