Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The Word Nerd Sez: P is for ...


I thought a while about what "P" word to choose. I thought maybe palindrome, because I love playing with words, or maybe propinquity, because I can spell it but I'm not sure what it means*, but when I saw this one I had to choose it. And yes, it's another of those words that I know how to spell, and think I maybe know what it means, but when I look it up I discover I had the totally wrong idea.

For some reason, I was thinking a palimpsest was a specific poetic form, like a sonnet or a limerick or a sestina. It turns out that a palimpsest is actually a piece of paper or manuscript "which has been written on more than once, with the earlier writing incompletely erased and often legible." Now that's a word with some interest for a writer: who wouldn't like to feel like writing has some permanence, that it can travel through time and speak one mind to another, years later. Of course, in my house you usually find examples of palimpsest on old grocery lists, but still ... it's a pleasing idea, as is the secondary definition: "An object, place, or area that reflects its history."

The word origin is also interesting, from the Latin version of the Greek word palimpsestum, which means "scraped again." It's a fun reminder that writing used to involve a lot more manual labor than it does today, when a couple of keystrokes can put your ideas on a virtual page and then share them with millions thousands a couple of readers. Next time I feel like griping about the struggles of revising, I'll think of some scribe hundreds of years ago who had to scrape down a stinking animal skin just to write another copy of his master's accounts, and I'll keep quiet.

*propinquity=proximity or similarity. Sounds more interesting than it is, unfortunately.

1 comment:

  1. propinquity=near, one of the few things I have retained from the Latin I took.