Oulipo and the Eodermdrome challenge

2009-06-05, Comments





At the Mathematics and Fiction workshop held last weekend in Oxford I particularly enjoyed David Bellos’ wonderful talk about Oulipo, the world’s longest running literary movement. The Oulipo is a group of writers interested in exploring the application of mathematical structures, patterns and algorithms to writing.

Queneau sonnets

As an example, poet and novelist Raymond Queneau unleashed the exponential power of combinatorics to write a small book of sonnets which he hadn’t finished reading himself!


Damascus cover

The sonnet is a highly constrained literary form: 14 lines, 10 syllables per line, and a well-defined rhyme pattern. More generally, the Oulipo discovered such mathematical constraints can generate interesting results. Constraints can also provide inspiration — tying things down helps give them shape. Consider two questions:

  1. What are you doing?
  2. What are you doing? (Limit your answer to 140 characters.)

The first sounds plain nosey; but the second has spawned a whole new form of publishing.

The day-in-a-life format is another famous literary constraint. Oulipo-inspired writer Richard Beard explains how he notched this constraint up a level, creating a novel in which the action is formally and tightly bound to a single day.

In “Damascus,” I only use nouns that appeared in The Times of Nov. 1 1993. How does this work? In one paragraph some children are racing to the sea and one of them wants to say — “Last to touch the water’s a donkey.” But there’s no “donkey” in the paper, so they end up saying, “Last to touch the water’s a walrus.” So you end up with some interesting and novel linguistic formulations. — Richard Beard

The Eodermdrome challenge


The simplest Oulipian structure David Bellos presented was the eodermdrome. The word “EODERMDROME” is itself an eodermdrome 1: if you place the letters E, O, D, R, M at the vertices of a pentagon, as shown, when you trace the sequence E→O→D→E→R→M→D→R→O→M→E you end up where you started, covering each line in the resulting figure exactly once. Mathematically speaking, the sequence EODERMDROME forms an Eulerian circuit within the fully connected graph whose vertices are the set of its constituent characters. Eodermdromes make naturally pleasing sequences, perhaps suitable for domain names or memorable phone numbers.

In his talk David Bellos offered three more eodermdromes. The second is credited to Jacques Roubaud. You’ll notice that the elements in the third are words rather than characters: the pattern works at any scale, and a reader needn’t be aware of it to appreciate its beauty.

  1. tears at rest
  2. étoile, ortie
  3. figs, lizards, snakes, heat, light, figs, snakes, light, lizards, heat, figs

Eodermdromes turn out to be surprisingly thin on the ground. I include three of my own discoveries 2 at the start of this article. Can you can find any better ones?


1 The word for such words is “autological”, as opposed to “heterological”. But is “heterological” itself heterological?

2 OK, so a computer did the hard work. It’s a nice programming exercise.


end code once