Word of the Week: Palimpsest

This one is so much easier to understand than to say! It refers to a text that has been erased and its writing surface reused. I first learned about palimpsests in Mr. Noble’s course in Medieval History, at UVA, in the early 80s. He was a great lecturer, and he had us spellbound as he recounted the recovery of ancient texts, presumably lost, when modern researchers examined Medieval manuscripts under UV light.

The OED Online provides a comprehensive entry, with the history of the word dating to the 17th Century. I will focus less on that than on how Literary Theorists tend to use the word, rather loosely and sometimes far too often.

The palimpsest as recycled material makes great sense, given the enormous cost of vellum in the Middle Ages. The concurrent impetus to erase the pagan past, ironically, may have preserved fragments of it for us. Had monks more vellum, many more works from Antiquity would have presumably vanished. One entire text by Archimedes comes to us this way, but mostly we have bit and pieces of others.

Modern usage includes the looser idea of anything partly erased by later action, with traces of the earlier meaning remaining. I have heard this in academic talks and read it in articles for years.  Here’s a well crafted example from Leila Walker’s 2012 article, “The Child of the City and the Palimpsest at Sea: De Quincey’s Chronological Constraints”:

A palimpsest arranges its history simultaneously, although the text was recorded sequentially. Each successive layer was added at a particular moment in time, and yet, once added, each layer occupies the same material space as all other layers.

This writer uses the word well in a symbolic sense. It’s a powerful if often confusing metaphor in contemporary literary theory. I have never been comfortable with the word, since it has too many consonants in odd places.

I am also uncomfortable with the idea, one hard to deny, of our entire civilization being a palimpsest. Traces of what came before remain, like the old Richmond trolley tracks, surrounded by granite cobbles and peeking through asphalt poured over an entire street. Ancient bigotries also darkly glimmer under the placid surface, while old sacrifices, some noble, some not so, linger just at the edge of vision.

When future ages inscribe their texts upon the scraped-bare vellum of our civilization, I wonder what they will put there?

7/2/18 Update from Cynthia Price, our Director of Media & Public Relations:

Curious about today’s word. Specifically, in many villages in Africa the students turn newspapers and books sideways to write in the white spaces because they don’t have access to new books. Obviously, the words have not been erased. Would one still call the document a palimpsest since the writing surface is being reused?

I’m not sure, but its close. The children would probably erase the original text if they could, in order to have more writing space. I also am impressed by the perseverance of those who do not have the luxury to simply toss paper into bins, as we also do.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

This blog will continue all summer, so nominate a word by e-mailing me (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.

See all of our Words of the Week here.

Word of the Week! Suborbital

As the summer moves along, I review old syllabi and create new ones. I’ve not taught my course “The Space Race” for a few years, but I did review the course materials and the word “suborbital” popped up. It’s a newcomer, with The OED only dating it to 1950.

That term describes not the free-fall of something orbiting the earth, but a specific altitude where one experiences a short period of weightlessness. Humans have been there, and beyond, since the early 1960s, with Alan Shepherd being the first American to do so. For those with enough money, however, there are now other options.

Suborbital flights will likely be in the news soon, as Sir Richard Branson’s latest craft, VSS Unity, has completed test flights and may, within a few months, take paying passengers to the edge of space.

When I explained suborbital fight to my students, I used the old cliche “what goes up MUST come down.” You can see it in the following image of the first two Project Mercury flights.Note the vertex (highest point) of the parabola and the brief duration of the journey. NASA’s little Redstone rocket, a borrowed Army missile based in Werher von Braun’s V-2, did not have the power to lift a capsule and astronaut into a true orbit, where an object is under the influence of gravity without any drag acting upon it. It falls forever but unlike a skydiver, the object in orbit has its decent checked by its forward momentum around the Earth. That perfect balance can last for a few hours or even years, if the spacecraft occasionally boosts its orbit, but for those like Alan Shepard or Sir Richard’s spacefarers, the craft do not attain free fall. They skim into the edges of space, then begin to descend. For a few moments, as they fall, travelers experience zero gravity (and Virgin Galactic customers find their wallets about a quarter million dollars lighter).

Perhaps in the era of cheaper access to space, costs will drop as they once did for airline travel. For now, experiencing suborbital flight seems a luxury for the rich, but so did transcontinental air travel during my parents’ lifetime.

Now we complain about legroom and the food and do not even look out the windows.

Addendum 6/25/18: Dr. Peter Smallwood, UR Department of Biology, reminds me that “For me, suborbital is a vein, bone, or a fracture in the bone just below the eye.”  That is the OED’s first definition, but to space-junkies like me, anything about human spaceflight drowns out the rest.

Virgin Galactic and suborbital fight images courtesy of Wikipedia.

This blog will continue all summer, so nominate a word by e-mailing me (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.

See all of our Words of the Week here.

Word of the Week! Efficacy

Brian Krach, enrolled in the Paralegal Studies Program of our School of Professional and Continuing Studies, nominated our word this week:

It is certainly familiar to me as a reference to medical trials; however, I was listening to a podcast where Jerry Muller, Professor of History at Catholic University, was a guest. He made the following statement:

“Its not that I deny the problem, its that I am skeptical of the efficacy of the proposed solution.”

Note the fine-grained level of meaning in Professor Muller’s statement. The OED Online provides a concise entry, with our earliest usage cited as 1527. The first definition, “the power or capacity to produce effects” shows that not all solutions and not all medicines, however well intended they may be, are guaranteed to be efficacious for a particular problem.

Peruse the OED entry to see a few obsolete definitions, all about effects, one coming from John Locke. One aside: As I continue to look at the etymology of our Words of the Week, I wonder what happened in the 15th and 16th Centuries to give us the first recorded uses of so many words. Then I come up with a two-part answer: “Gutenberg” and “Renaissance.”

This blog will continue all summer, so nominate a word by e-mailing me (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.

See all of our Words of the Week here.

Word of the Week! Existential

This word seems easy enough. The adjective refers to existence. That is, indeed, the earliest definition in The OED Online, “of or relating to the existence of a thing.” That sense goes back as far as the 17th Century.

Outside of academia, one often encounters the word in the sense of “being a matter of life or death.” I’ve heard  North Korean nuclear weapons, unmarked asteroids hurtling by the Earth, and slowly mounting climate change all referred to as “existential threats” to human civilization or even the survival of our species.

If only, however, it were that stark. We would have a very short post indeed this week, but we can blame mid-20th-Century philosophers and writers for making matters existential so complex. Here the OED and other references take us into the realm of existential philosophy, or existentialism. If you have read the works of Sartre or Camus, you may consider it a gloomy school of thought. Read The Stranger, or any of American author Paul Bowles’ austere and beautiful fiction to encounter the core of existentialism: that humans are alone in an indifferent if not hostile universe. Our actions, while freely chosen on our parts, mean, finally, nothing.

Yet an existentialist philosophy need not be so bleak. I’ve been reading Man’s Search For Meaning by Viktor Frankl, after running across the work as a reference in an article about the value of failure in learning.

Frankl, an Austrian psychologist, not only survived Auschwitz and, almost as harrowing, a Bavarian concentration camp in the Second World War’s last months, but he practiced medicine in the latter camp. He had little to offer fellow prisoners aside from a few aspirin doled out by the SS and kind words. Despite contracting typhus, Frankl reconstructed a manuscript seized from him at Auschwitz. It contained a new system of psychology that Frankl called logotherapy. This was an existentialist form of therapy to address what the psychologist called “the existential vacuum” of modern life, where cultural traditions have waned and leisure time often results in mere boredom. Frankl’s theory and practice emphasize focusing on creating meaning in one’s life and pursuing goals, even in the bleakest situations.

That’s hardly gloomy, yet there too our word of the week speaks to the essentials of human existence.

This blog will continue all summer, so nominate a word by e-mailing me (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.

See all of our Words of the Week here.

Images of Viktor Frankl, by Prof. Dr. Franz Vesely, and of Paul Bowles courtesy of Wikipedia.

Word of the Week! Multilateral

The field of mathematics gives us our word this week, though today it tends to mean anything that involves three or more governments or organizations, such as the famous Yalta Conference of 1945, pictured.

It dates, in its original sense of “having more than four sides,” to the 17th Century. Our political usage of the word only appeared in the middle of the 19th, according the entry in The Oxford English Dictionary Online.

Compare this word to “bilateral,” such as the on-again, off-again talks between the leaders of the US and North Korea, or “unilateral,” such as when an organization makes a decision without any other parties’ involvement.

Our word appears in the realms of business and political science most often today, but its older geometric and social meanings linger. The OED offers a recently added definition, “offering two or more distinct curricula for secondary education,” with an earliest recorded use in 1938.

As negotiations and trade disputes continue to be in the news this summer, I expect to see “multilateral” and its kin frequently.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia.