Awesome words: Palimpsest

Palimpsest: a page of writing, particularly on parchment, that has been erased or scraped clean to allow for new writing.

A palimpsest from the 5th or 6th century

This is another one of those words that is a whole story unto itself. What did the original writing say? Why was it erased? What was so important about the new writing that the old had to make way?

Palimpsest comes from the Ancient Greek palimpsestos which means ‘scraped again’. Cicero, the Roman writer and orator, used it to refer to the Ancient Roman practice of writing on wax tablets, which were then smoothed out to be used again. So the term is rooted in a practice of utilitarian necessity.

Even so, I find the idea of lost or hidden knowledge that the term palimpsest implies completely beguiling.


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