While it may seem so, given last week’s choice of panopticon, I’m not overly attracted to words that begin with the letter P. I do, however, have a different confession to make about this Friday’s Word of the Week: it’s not a new word. It’s been a hectic couple of weeks, and though I did finish reading The Human Comedy(William Saroyan), which is a wonderful book, it didn’t yield any interesting new words. As a result, I’m falling back on a favorite word of mine: palimpsest. I actually learned the word in 10th grade English class, which was, as the saying goes, many many moons ago. At the time, I thought it was just a funny word and so it stuck. It is sort of awkward, with its sudden switch from /p/ to /s/ that makes it feel like a hiccup, and it’s not a particularly handy word that you’d need every day. But I like it, and after 25 years, I finally started to wonder why. (No, as a matter of fact, I’m not particularly quick on the uptake, thankyouverymuch.)
A palimpsest, as some may or may not know, refers to a tablet or parchment which was written upon, imperfectly erased or eroded so the old writing was still faintly visible, and then reused. The old writing was like a ghost under the fresher, newer writing. Here’s a link to the website of one of the world’s most famous palimpsests.
It seems like an oddly specific word, kind of like the way tailgating refers specifically to a party conducted in the parking lot of a sports stadium, prior to the sporting event people are coming to see. Languages are fascinating that way, and – at least in the case of creating entire words for such limited, specific use – entirely inseparable from culture. In my very first post, I mentioned the Luganda word okusowala, which is a verb that describes resting your hand outside a car window. On the surface of it, as with tailgating, it’s easy to explain the definition. It’s the connotation, or the emotional force of the word, that is inextricable from the culture which gave birth to its existence. For example, okusowala doesn’t just refer to a hand resting outside the car window, but also what that action implies and the kind of person who would perform this action. According to Simmy Abroad: “When I asked her to explain what this word meant, she instead described what it characterizes. ‘It is someone who has no cares. The boss,’ she described. She told me that young people might joke to each other ‘Nsowola!’ meaning ‘watch how cool and carefree I’m going to be today’. Or it could be used as criticism – ‘look at that person acting like they are so much.’” We have the same behavior but nothing even close to the same connotation, and in turn, no specific word for the behavior.
But back to palimpsest. Really, how many things could this refer to these days? If someone does a poor job of erasing pencil marks in a test blue book, for example, and then writes over those marks, do we suddenly have to ask them to please turn in their palimpsests? God forbid we return to those horrible erasable pens. They were creating palimpsests at a rate that would put two frisky rabbits to shame.
What is most likely behind my long-lived interest in this word is how easily it can expanded to describe how I feel about writing and myself.
For example, I feel that all writing is a palimpsest, if not in physical form then in its essence. We build layer upon layer of meaning into our words and sentences, and our ideas do not come from a vacuum. They are built, one upon another, and often, older ideas are visible underneath new ideas. We are influenced by other things we’ve written or done, and they show up constantly. Maybe this is because it takes a while for ideas to germinate – sometimes even 25 years! In the meantime, other things have happened or influenced us, so when we get around to writing, the original idea is now covered in new meanings and experiences.
Similarly, reading can also be considered a palimpsest. Sometimes we pick up a new novel and we recognize that it’s yet another retelling of Romeo and Juliet, and this instantly adds to our understanding of the story because now the characters are familiar, and we know what will happen to them. Literary influences can be revealed in new stories constantly. This pattern recognition is like being able to discern the first layer of ink beneath the layers that came later.
Finally, I’d even go as far as to say that we ourselves are palimpsests. There are some that say our past selves do not exist anymore, but I believe they do. They are buried under years and experience and life, but they are still there and they make appearances every once in a while. How many of us suddenly feel 10-years-old again when we see an old toy or type of candy we used to like? Or when a family member pushes our buttons and makes us feel like stomping off to our rooms? I have been sifting through boxes of old pictures and after looking for several minutes at a group of pictures from a certain time in my life, I feel the rush of everything I felt and did and wanted back then. I recognize some of those same desires in the person I am today. And I’ve developed into that person because of all the layers of ink that have come before and still seep through when the conditions are right. We write new experiences on top of old ones that are not forgotten, though some are remote enough to be so faint, barely visible anymore.
And so, from lowly vocabulary item for a quiz in high school to a way to describe my self and my work, palimpsest had stayed with me all these years. It took me a while, but if my 10th grade English teacher is still interested, I can now write an original sentence, and even an essay, using the word palimpsest.