• palimpsest •
pæ-lim(p)-sest • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun
Meaning: 1. A document written on a sheet or paper or parchment that has been used before, the earlier writing either scraped off though perhaps still partially visible. 2. Anything with more than one layer or aspect beneath its surface, anything multilayered.
Notes: The British and Americans cannot agree on the pronunciation of this word. In Britain it is pronounced [pah-lim(p)-sest] while the Yanks pronounce it [pæ-lim(p)-sest]. It is difficult to hear the second [p] because it is so similar to the [m]—pronounce them yourself and notice how both are bilabial, involving both lips. The adjective is palimpsestic [pæ-lim(p)-ses-tik].
In Play: Today's good word effortlessly settles into the description of any work of art: "The Little Prince is much more than a children's story; it is a palimpsest of the author's affairs, stormy marriage, and perhaps even a covert suicide note." Places or people whose history shows through a modern façade beg for it: "New York is a palimpsest of all the cultures that passed through Ellis Island in by-gone years."
Word History: Today's good word goes back through Latin palimpsestus to Greek palimpsestos "scraped again". This compound contains palin "again" + psen "to rub or scrape." Greek palin derives from Proto-Indo-European *kwel-/kwol "turn", the same root underlying Latin collum "neck" and English collar. Psen is akin to Sanskrit psati "eat" and Russian pisat' "write", both specialized types of scraping. (It doesn't take much effort to scrape together an expression of our gratitude to our distinguished friend, Lyn Laboriel, for alerting us to the beauty and depth of today's Good Word.)
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