Word of the week

Word of the week: palimpsest

Last month the BBC2 Quiz Show “Only Connect” featured a question about palimpsests. I had a vague idea of what a palimpsest was (some kind of document), intended to look it up, and then forgot.

Earlier this month, while looking up information about Archimedes (trying to explain to my daughter what “Eureka” meant, and why Archimedes had said it) the word came up again, and this time I did look it up. It’s a manuscript or piece of writing material (often parchment) which has been written on again, but with the earlier contents recoverable one way or another, especially with modern scientific techniques.

Writing materials were often expensive, so they were reused, and you might end up with a prayer book containing erased (but recoverable) texts from many centuries earlier. This is what happened with the Archimedes Palimpsest, “a manuscript of extraordinary importance to the history of science” as it says on the official website. There are treatises by Archimedes that we only know about because of this document, which served as a prayer book for centuries.

The word also featured in “Changing Places” by David Lodge, which I read last week, and wrote about more than once, and this has been the tipping point for making it a Word of the Week. It might even help me to remember what it means, in the long term. The word appears in the opening pages of the book, Professor Maurice Zapp flying to England on a charter plane:

“this plane, for instance, belonged to a company called Orbis; the phoney Latin name inspired no confidence and he wouldn’t mind betting that an ultra-violet photograph would reveal a palimpsest of fourteen different airline insignia under its fresh paint”.


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