palimpsest
n. a parchment or the like from which writing has been partially or completely erased to make room for another text.

I chose “palimpsest” because I recently read it (I wish I could remember where) and had absolutely no idea what it meant. I thought, “This is such a strange-looking word, it must mean something very interesting!”

It doesn’t. At least, not really. I imagine its use must be limited to antiquities, since one doesn’t often hear of writing material being reused in today’s age. But the word “palimpsest” may bring very strong emotions to mind for an archaeologist or a linguist—they’re a relic from an age of vellum parchment, which was difficult and costly to produce, and so often reused. Modern scientists and historians have spent tremendous amounts of time and money developing techniques to read the hidden text of palimpsests without destroying the manuscript. There are some very famous palimpsests, notably Archimedes’ Palimpsest and any number of codices to the gospels, and early translations of the Bible into Greek.

The word entered English in the mid-17th century, imported from the Latin palimpsestus, itself almost a direct import from the Greek palimpsestos, which means “scraped again” or “rubbed again.” The portion which means “again” is derived from the the Greek palin, the the rubbing or scraping smooth is derived from psen. The former root is Indo-European. The latter can’t seem to be traced any further than the Greek.

§1796 · March 28, 2007 · Tags: , ·

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