pa·​limp·​sest | \ ˈpa-ləm(p)-ˌsest How to pronounce palimpsest (audio) , pə-ˈlim(p)- How to pronounce palimpsest (audio) \

Definition of palimpsest

1 : writing material (such as a parchment or tablet) used one or more times after earlier writing has been erased
2 : something having usually diverse layers or aspects apparent beneath the surface Canada … is a palimpsest, an overlay of classes and generations.— Margaret Atwood too short a time to get to know the palimpsest of Genevan societies, let alone those of Switzerland— George Steiner

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In olden days, writing surfaces were so rare that they were often used more than once. "Palimpsest" originally described an early form of recycling in which an old document was erased to make room for a new one when parchment ran short. Fortunately for modern scholars, the erasing process wasn't completely effective, so the original could often be distinguished under the newer writing. De republica, by Roman statesman and orator Cicero, is one of many documents thus recovered from a palimpsest. Nowadays, the word palimpsest can refer not only to such a document but to anything that has multiple layers.

Examples of palimpsest in a Sentence

The ancient city is an architectural palimpsest.
Recent Examples on the Web Centuries of paint, layer upon layer, peel away, a palimpsest of fine intentions measured in the warm earth tones of the south—terra-cotta, russet, rose madder, ocher; colors that were the latest thing in Caesar's day. Stanley Stewart, Condé Nast Traveler, 22 Mar. 2021 Caillebotte was fascinated by the transition, and by the way the city could be read as a kind of palimpsest, one historical layer on top of another. Washington Post, 20 Jan. 2021 Every king’s reign involved expansion or demolition, modification or neglect, turning the building into an elaborate palimpsest of styles and functions. Edward Rothstein, WSJ, 25 Sep. 2020 Still, the portrait accrues meaning when viewed as a palimpsest. Alexandra Styron, New York Times, 11 Feb. 2020 Islamic empires were living palimpsests, their many-layered societies comprising a dizzying array of religions, sects and ethnicities. Tunku Varadarajan, WSJ, 31 Jan. 2020 What remains is a palimpsest of culture and history, as layered as a cross section of the earth itself. Christopher Bollen, New York Times, 18 Feb. 2020 His weapons were painted with a palimpsest of names and references, many of them to historical figures associated with the Crusades and other Christian wars against Muslims. Hari Kunzru, The New York Review of Books, 10 Mar. 2020 The plot of the first Frozen is an obvious palimpsest of script drafts with a nonsensical heel turn at the end, sufficiently ridiculous to be mocked via summary by the snowman Olaf in one of the sequel’s few genuinely funny sequences. Ross Douthat, National Review, 9 Jan. 2020

These example sentences are selected automatically from various online news sources to reflect current usage of the word 'palimpsest.' Views expressed in the examples do not represent the opinion of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback.

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First Known Use of palimpsest

1825, in the meaning defined at sense 1

History and Etymology for palimpsest

Latin palimpsestus, from Greek palimpsēstos scraped again, from palin + psēn to rub, scrape; akin to Sanskrit psāti, babhasti he chews

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The first known use of palimpsest was in 1825

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Cite this Entry

“Palimpsest.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 16 Jun. 2021.

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More Definitions for palimpsest



English Language Learners Definition of palimpsest

technical : a very old document on which the original writing has been erased and replaced with new writing
formal : something that has changed over time and shows evidence of that change

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