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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Did You Know?

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 Georgetown is a good place to glimpse such palimpsests, which include the cobbles and streetcar tracks on O and P streets. John Kelly, Washington Post, "In Georgetown, some streets have been renamed again and again," 31 Aug. 2019 In the spacious interiors, walls are pared back to brick or sanded down to a palimpsest of paint layers resembling an expressionist canvas. Cnt Editors, Condé Nast Traveler, "These 6 European Apartments Are Basically Private Design Hotels," 23 Aug. 2019 The expanse of that ancient freshwater lake is now an ecological palimpsest, a zone dominated by the world’s largest tropical rain forest, home to the richest diversity of plants and animals on earth. Austin Merrill, WSJ, "The Amazon: The Heart of the World," 3 Dec. 2018 The entire country was a sort of reptilian palimpsest. Natalie Bakopoulos, San Francisco Chronicle, "‘The Last Watchman of Old Cairo,’ by Michael David Lukas," 19 Apr. 2018 The production might be described as a theatrical palimpsest revealing the distinctive sensibilities of theatrical pioneers separated by language, culture and history yet united by a commitment to radical originality. Charles Mcnulty,, "With 'A Pink Chair,' Wooster Group conjures from spirits from theater's past," 7 Apr. 2018 The palimpsest of time is an enduring fascination for Barada in a city that is constantly morphing, sometimes in ways that erode the quality of life. Hamish Bowles, Vogue, "A Moroccan Artist's Love Letter to Tangier Explores Recollections Personal and Political In A New Exhibition," 6 Apr. 2018 Traces of old words on a palimpsest survive cleanings and erosion, as fondness and hurt do, even if the word situationship communicates such feelings never developed. Cassie Owens,, "Situationships: Why young people aren't making it official," 5 Apr. 2018 The photographs capture reality but, by repetition, distort the image until what’s left is a blurred and layered palimpsest of form and tone., "10 Portland art exhibits to brighten your winter," 3 Jan. 2018

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.” The Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Inc., Accessed 22 November 2019.

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More Definitions for palimpsest


How to pronounce palimpsest (audio) How to pronounce palimpsest (audio)

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

More from Merriam-Webster on palimpsest

Rhyming Dictionary: Words that rhyme with palimpsest Encyclopedia article about palimpsest

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