A Post About Palimpsest’s

I learned a new word.  How wonderful it is to learn a new word as an adult.  As someone with a self-reported firm grasp of the English language I am always astounded to learn a new word.  It’s as if it has been hiding from me for 27 years.  How dare it go unnoticed, unread and undefined for so long.  Imagine all the others out there just waiting to be found; cheeky bastards.  I could die tomorrow having never uncovered all of the words waiting to be uncovered.  If ever there was an argument for being widely read this would surely be it.

Do you know what the first word I ever learned to spell was?  It was ‘freak’.  It’s true.  Have you seen the Disney film ‘Dumbo’?  In it one of the mean adult elephants refers to Dumbo as an ‘F-R-E-A-K’ – because if you are going to insult an elephant with enlarged ears it is best to spell your insult lest he understand it.  Incidentally, I don’t think I knew what this spelled, or even what it meant, I just went around repeating it – constantly.  Kids say the darnedest things indeed.

I kind of gave away my word discovery in the title – way to bury the lead.  Just to spell it out (literally) the word I learned is palimpsest.  Palimpsest.  Say it with me. I love the way this word rolls around in my mouth.  In case this is a new word for you as well a palimpsest is a manuscript or piece of writing that has been effaced to make room for later writing.  Essentially it is an early form of recycling although unlike our current notion of recycling the aim wasn’t to reduce waste, but to minimise costs.  Parchment was expensive and rare so reusing it made sense.  This takes the whole notion of new words waiting for discovery and amplifies it; there are entire works, books, ideas, stories buried under layers of other ancient text.  Imagine that.

“After centuries of mistreatment, the Archimedes palimpsest is in bad shape. During its thousand-year life, it has been scraped, singed by fire, dribbled with wax, smeared with glue, and ravaged by a deep purple fungus, which in places has eaten through its pages. Without the use of computer technology, the Archimedes palimpsest would be largely illegible. But modern imaging technologies, similar to those that helped experts read portions of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1996, allow for astonishingly precise views of faded text.”

Since learning this new word two more things have come to my attention.  First: This word is everywhere.  Second: This phenomenon is known as the frequency illusion.  Seriously, I can barely go a day without seeing the word palimpsest somewhere.  To be clear, I am not spending my days immersed in ancient documents in some museums dusty basement.  Hell, I’m unemployed and barely get out of my pajamas most days; yet I keep seeing it.  The same thing happened when I learned the term ‘olfactory’ (and no, I don’t know how I got to approximately 25 years of age never having heard or read the term).  Perhaps it’s due to the word palimpsest being somewhat unique that I am more likely to notice it when it does crop up.  Perhaps I’m going insane.  I can’t rule either out.

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