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

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 real legacy of this entire ugly debacle, then, may never be fully known: a palimpsest of stories not told, of justice not sought. Jessica Winter, The New Yorker, 2 June 2022 Which is perhaps because Shyne Barrow is an actual 43-year-old palimpsest, a bunch of guys baked into one: the rap phenom, the convict, the religious scholar, the statesman. Sean Williams, Rolling Stone, 22 May 2022 Istanbul—formerly known as Constantinople, itself formerly known as Byzantium, itself formerly known as Lygos—has a new layer to its renowned palimpsest. Richard Morgan, WSJ, 4 Mar. 2022 Pendleton, 38, whose work often incorporates language layered like a palimpsest, finds his artistic connection to Simone in a shared commitment to the complexity, at times the indeterminacy, of voice. New York Times, 16 Mar. 2022 Today, Castine is a palimpsest of four centuries of vying nations, cultural aspirations and historic buildings, with the earliest surviving house dating to the mid-1700s. Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson, Washington Post, 10 Mar. 2022 Instead, Columbus and Klein present a palimpsest of erratically overlapping perspectives. Jessica Kiang, Variety, 26 Jan. 2022 Television was our combination campfire and nightlight in the days when smoke, dust and ruins hung over downtown New York and a palimpsest of vapor could still be seen in the space the World Trade Center had occupied. John Anderson, WSJ, 8 Sep. 2021 This ancient continent, forever irresistible to Americans, always drew me back for at least one reason: the thousands of years of human history visible in each city’s architectural palimpsest. Lauren Mowery, Forbes, 28 Sep. 2021 See More

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.

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

Buying Guide

Spruce up your space with writing desks selected by our Reviews team.

Learn More About palimpsest

Time Traveler for palimpsest

Time Traveler

The first known use of palimpsest was in 1825

See more words from the same year

Listen to Our Podcast About palimpsest

Dictionary Entries Near palimpsest




See More Nearby Entries 

Statistics for palimpsest

Last Updated

12 Jun 2022

Cite this Entry

“Palimpsest.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 25 Jun. 2022.

Style: MLA
MLACheck Mark Icon ChicagoCheck Mark Icon APACheck Mark Icon Merriam-WebsterCheck Mark Icon

More from Merriam-Webster on palimpsest Encyclopedia article about palimpsest


Test Your Vocabulary

Which Word Does Not Belong?

  • one green toy robot amidst many red toy robots
  • Which of these words does not mean "nonsense"?
True or False

Test your knowledge - and maybe learn something along the way.

Universal Daily Crossword

A daily challenge for crossword fanatics.

Love words? Need even more definitions?

Subscribe to America's largest dictionary and get thousands more definitions and advanced search—ad free!