- Associated Press - Saturday, January 2, 2016

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - Newt Thomas was about 12 when he discovered that he possesses a special skill.

His ability didn’t propel him to fame or great fortune, but it did make him a popular customer at Plank’s Bier Garten on the South Side.

For many years at Plank’s, the bartender would tap Thomas to impress customers drawkcab lleps ot ytiliba sih htiw.

That is: with his ability to spell backward.

At age 82, Thomas can still spell words backward as quickly as most other people spell them forward.

The talent isn’t one he cultivated, said the retired medical-equipment salesman; it just came to him in his youth.

Thomas has long been a good speller.

At Barrett Junior High School, he said, he became the spelling champion in the seventh and eighth grades.

“I always liked words,” he said.

Except one: pugnacity.

The noun knocked him out of the state spelling championship in the eighth grade.

“That doggone word: P-U-G-N-A-C-I-T-Y, Y-T-I-C-A-N-G-U-P,” said Thomas, reinforcing that he has mastered its spelling- forward and backward -since placing eighth in the state in 1947.

Thomas- who lives in the Berwick neighborhood with his wife of 60 years, Katie -attributes his unusual ability to seeing “the words in his head” as he says or hears them.

To speak them backward or spell them backward out loud, Thomas said, he just has to read them from his mind.

Scientifically, the ability to see words as one hears them is known as “tickertaping.”

Little is known about the experience of mental subtitles, however, because the phenomenon has rarely been studied.

“Quite a few people seem to have this back-spelling ability, but at present we don’t know to what extent it is linked to tickertaping,” Mark C. Price, a psychology professor at the University of Bergen in Norway, said by email.

Earlier this year, Price and two colleagues reported the only recent research on tickertaping. They studied 425 adults and found that only 0.6 to 3.2 percent of the group experienced tickertaping strongly. More than half experienced it to a lesser degree.

The study, Price noted, indicated that most tickertapers aren’t particularly good backward spellers.

“However, a minority might use their visualization to help backwards spelling,” he said.

Examples of backward spellers crop up occasionally.

In the early 1970s, psychology professors at the University of Reading in England and the University of Waterloo in Ontario studied a woman who could spell and say words and phrases backward with no delay and “perfect fluency.”

Asked how she did it, the woman said she “could make herself ‘see’ the spoken word in front of her and so could read it off easily, in either direction,” according to a 1974 report on their study in The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology.

In 2012, an Oklahoma teenager became an Internet sensation when videos of her spelling backward for friends went viral- earning her an appearance on the Today show.

According to the Guinness World Records website, the record holder for backward spelling is Krishna Pandey, a native of Nepal who in 2013 correctly spelled 36 of 40 words backward in one minute at a convention organized by the Association of Nepalese in America in Rye Brook, N.Y.

Though not a world-record holder, Thomas has earned a little fame: In 1985, he was featured on a WBNS-TV (Channel 10) news report about his talent. The segment, reported from Plank’s (still a haunt for him and his wife), also highlighted another of his skills: driving horses as a harness racer at Scioto Downs.

Thomas gave up harness racing with age, but backward spelling is a habit he doesn’t plan to kick.

His wife, a retired Columbus schoolteacher, takes his special skill in stride. After 60 years of marriage, she said with a chuckle, much of it “goes in one ear and out the other.”

To demonstrate his talent, Thomas recently agreed to take part in a small backward-spelling bee.

Despite efforts to trip him up, he deftly spelled Mississippi, ventriloquist, xylophone and philanthropic- all backward.

And supercalifragilisticexpialidocious?

Nice try.

“Everyone always asks that,” said Thomas, noting that he practices the mouthful.

One final question- “Can you spell backward forward?” -yielded a smile from Thomas, suggesting that he’d heard it before, too.



Information from: The Columbus Dispatch, https://www.dispatch.com

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