pa·​limp·​sest ˈpa-ləm(p)-ˌsest How to pronounce palimpsest (audio) pə-ˈlim(p)- How to pronounce palimpsest (audio)
: writing material (such as a parchment or tablet) used one or more times after earlier writing has been erased
: 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 SwitzerlandGeorge Steiner

Did you know?

Long ago, 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. (The word is from the Greek palimpsēstos, meaning "scraped again.") 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 The palimpsest is swollen with meanings, and exerts pressure over new meanings, such that penetrability is a kind of memory—and memory a form of force. 1968 is the year of The Years, just as Shame is Ernaux’s book about 1952 and Happening about 1963. Tobi Haslett, Harper's Magazine, 18 Sep. 2023 The cracks and crevices, not to mention the palimpsests and overlays, in the Bible as it really is make for an ever more modern text. Adam Gopnik, The New Yorker, 21 Aug. 2023 The multispectral imaging of the palimpsest was carried out in January 2020. Dhananjay Khadilkar, Ars Technica, 18 Apr. 2023 Our faces are palimpsests too—our cheeks kissed again and again, over the years, by puppies, by babies, by the sun; our frowns melted away by those same puppies and babies, or Botox; our lotions and potions, evanescent layers of care and comfort that fall on us, into us, soft as light. Emily Dougherty, Town & Country, 1 May 2023 Gysembergh remembered being struck by its potential when the Archimedes palimpsest was decoded. Dhananjay Khadilkar, Ars Technica, 18 Apr. 2023 The Kessel find is a double palimpsest because the parchment was then used a third time. Tim Newcomb, Popular Mechanics, 11 Apr. 2023 Elsewhere, the interior spaces are palimpsests, bearing the quiet traces of previous tenants. M. Z. Adnan, The New Yorker, 27 Feb. 2023 The area was a palimpsest of horror: In 1939, advancing German forces rounded up and executed Polish priests and intellectuals, Jewish families, and disabled people, then buried them there in a long line of trenches the retreating Polish army had dug for defense. Andrew Curry, Science | AAAS, 17 Aug. 2021 See More

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'palimpsest.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.

Word History


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

First Known Use

1825, in the meaning defined at sense 1

Time Traveler
The first known use of palimpsest was in 1825


Dictionary Entries Near palimpsest

Cite this Entry

“Palimpsest.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 7 Dec. 2023.

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