What’s a palimpsest?


Word count: 233 words

Reading time: Less than 1 minute

Building your vocabulary is always a good idea. It  benefits your reading and it also helps you be more specific and precise in your writing. Here is my word of the week: palimpsest.

I love going to theatre. And when I can’t go — either because I don’t have the time, or I live in the wrong city — I love reading reviews.

I’ve been to the Stratford Theatre, in Ontario, only once, when we saw an effervescent production of Anything Goes. But last week I read a review of the company’s new staging of Much Ado About Nothing. And the word that caught my eye? Palimpsest. Here is how it was used:

This show-stopping moment of physical comedy acts as a palimsest for her [Beatrice’s] entire character arc.

My friend, the late Lloyd Dykk, taught me this word many years ago. It means a manuscript page from a scroll or book from which the text has been scraped off  so the page can be used again. A photograph of a page from the Archimedes palimpsest is shown here. Metaphorically (as in the theatre review) it means something that has been layered, implying both richness and depth.

Etymologically, the word dates back to 1660s Latin, palimpsestus, which in turn came from the Greek palimpsestos meaning “scraped again.”

[Photo at top of page courtesy Spierzchala, Flickr Creative Commons]

Posted June 6th, 2012 in Word of the week

  • Bob

    I think that to get across the meaning of “palimpsest” you have to describe it as a document from which the previous text has been IMPERFECTLY erased. “Erased” gives the impression of leaving a clean slate.

    • Hmm, I never saw this in any of the definitions I found. In fact, Romans wrote on wax-covered tablets that could be smoothed and reused. Why do you think it’s important to add the modifier “imperfectly,” Bob?

      • Bob

        It is the very basis of the metaphorical use meaning the “layers” of previous experience enhancing an actor’s performance, the quality of a writer’s work. The previous experience “shines through”.

        • Bob

          palimpsest – Definition of palimpsest
          a parchment, tablet, etc. that has been written upon or inscribed two or three times, the previous text or texts having been imperfectly erased and remaining, therefore, still …
          Merriam is about the same.

          • That makes a lot of sense, Bob. I should know better than to trust wikipedia or dictionary.com (which says partly OR completely erased). I’m usually much more careful about my sources!!