Our beloved Latin teacher gave us so much more than Latin lessons. His knowledge base was so great that art, music, cultural analysis, poetry and word-perfect quotes co-mingled with Latin grammar and vocabulary. But the words. Oh, the words. Inevitably, in dulcet tones, he prefaced his remarks, “Now here’s a word you will need to know.” And I, silly girl who thought she had, ahem, an advanced vocabulary, would hear him pronounce a word I had never read, heard, seen, smelt or tasted. Never ever.
It’s a wonder my eyes don’t permanently face backward, with all the mental eye-rolling I performed. Hah! How could it be such an important word? I’ve never even heard of it! Ah, the arrogance, the pure high-octane arrogance. <blushes>
You know what would follow: that word would crop up here, there and everywhere within days and weeks of my learning it. But now I owned that word. It was mine.
And to this day it is a sweet delight to read a word taught to me by my beloved Latin scholar.
Palimpsest is one of those words. It means ‘a manuscript on which two or more successive texts have been written, each one being erased to make room for the next.’ Imagine a monk in a scriptorium with no skins to write on, but a vast library close by. He finds something he believes is obscure, scrapes the hide, and carries on with his copying.
Last night I found my old friend palimpsest in relation to a DOG (!) in Alexander McCall Smith’s novel Love Over Scotland.
…Cyril [Angus’s dog] was rapidly diverted from this agreeable fantasy to the real world of smells for a dog, and Drummond Place, though familiar territory, was rich in possibilities; each passer-by left a trail that spoke to where he had been and what he had been doing — a whole history might lie on the pavement, like song-lines across the Australian Outback, detectable only to those with the necessary nose. Other smells were like a palimpsest: odour laid upon odour, smells that could be peeled off to reveal the whiff below.