Tricky Words: Palimpsest

The true definition of this word is rather jejune.

From the New Oxford American dictionary:

palimpsest |ˈpalimpˌsest|
a manuscript or piece of writing material on which the original writing has been effaced to make room for later writing but of which traces remain.
• figurative something reused or altered but still bearing visible traces of its earlier form : Sutton Place is a palimpsest of the taste of successive owners.

Really, it’s a fancy word for the third-grade homework assignment you turned in that your teacher returned to you for being too “messy”. The teacher did like the story Jimmy the Talking Donkey, but did not like that it started as Ralph the Talking Snail. Your teacher only knows this because you used a freshly sharpened #2, the point of which dug in too far when you wrote the story of Ralph. Of course your eraser, once a mighty eight millimeters, now barely peaks over the edge of the ferrule only to see bruised remnants of its former self scattered across the kitchen table. The meniscus-like eraser’s inability to efface anything leaves you with a choice: start over, which was always out of the question, or, write harder and darker the name of the final title leaving its antecedents ghostly decipherable in the sheen of semi-erased graphite. IF, however–and believe me this is a colossal “if” because nobody dislikes overachievers more than me–you knew the word palimpsest, you could just turn that homework assignment back in to the teacher declaring that the messiness was done on purpose to illustrate visually what a palimpsest was, thereby allowing you to complete your homework and do a show-and-tell all in one fell swoop. BOOM. Extra recess for the smart kid.

If you really think about it–and I have, and am now writing about it–our youth had many examples of this phenomenon. Toys like the Etch A Sketch and Magna Doodle were all destined to show us the definition of palimpsest. Perhaps not when they were new, but after a few years of use, abuse, shaking and being stepped on, these toys undoubtedly ended up as “writing material on which the original writing [had] been effaced to make room for later writing but of which traces [remained]”.

Teaching children that it is never, ever OK to lift your pencil off the paper since 1960.


The figurative use of this word helps it not be so boring. You get to play with the idea of traces of the primordial shining through despite years of erosion or masking. An excerpt from Ada Louise Huxtable’s Unreal America: Architecture and Illusion (NY Times has the first chapter here, log in required) illustrates one way this word can be used in a figurative sense.

“Our awareness and appreciation of historic buildings and neighborhoods must be coupled with a sensitivity to and desire for their continued relevance and use, for their “connectedness,” for the way they bridge the years and the continuum of social, cultural, urban, and architectural history. It is their recycling and adaptation that will keep them as a living part of today’s cities and communities. Their uses may be unconventional; they may even become marginal; they may offer a casual palimpsest rather than textbook history; they will certainly be impure rather than pure–if there is really anything admirable about that kind of pedantic reduction to irrelevance.”

Kinda nice, isn’t it? Old buildings bla bla bla may offer us a glimpse of how things were. Much better than gleaning how things were from a dusty textbook.

[image courtesy of Drawing America]

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