A Vested Interest in Palimpsest: How Unusual Words Trend
The English language contains certain meaning-rich words that command attention and stir controversy. “Paradigm,” for instance: When Thomas Kuhn used it in 1966 to describe accepted scientific theories, and gave us the phrase “paradigm shift,” he launched a thousand articles, several hundred books and quite a few careers, some just distantly related to science.
That kind of word raises curiosity and pries open the imagination, encouraging us to think about what we might otherwise ignore. My favourite is “palimpsest.” When I first noticed it in print, four decades ago, it struck me as odd, beautiful and full of promise. It’s a term that engages many writers and continues to attract new meanings but to some readers it still seems slightly far-fetched, maybe outrageous.
A friend of mine, writing a book about architecture, was told by her editor to use it no more than once in her manuscript.
Earlier this month, when an art gallery in England opened an exhibition called Love in Palimpsests, a reviewer called the word “an obscure, esoteric term.” Yet it’s now in the titles of more than 200 books in the University of Toronto library catalogue.