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]

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