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Feb 20, 2003
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Words with interesting etymologies

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Pronunciation RealAudio

pentimento (pen-tuh-MEN-toh) noun, plural pentimenti

A painting or drawing that has been painted over and shows through it.

[From Italian pentimento (repentance), from pentire (to repent), from Latin paenitere (to regret).]

Today's word comes to us from Italian and literally means repentance. What in the world could a form of painting have to do with contrition? To know the answer, we may have to apply the pentimento approach itself. Digging a bit deeper, we discover the word ultimately derives from Latin paenitere (to repent or regret). Now it becomes easy to see. The painting didn't turn out as you expected it? Don't regret the loss of canvas, just paint over it! In other words, to repent, you repaint.

"Not satisfied with the passive position of the feet in Giotto's left-hand figure -- which he at first copied exactly, as can be seen in the drawing -- Michelangelo made a pentimento to replace the left foot, thus giving more stability and energy to the pose."
Charles De Tolnay; Michelangelo; Princeton University Press, 1943.

"In photographs taken by once-secret American surveillance satellites, traces of the buried past show through the arid surface of the Middle East like pentimento. The traces are as intriguing to archaeologists as the ghostly painted-over layers on a canvas are to art historians."
John Noble Wilford; Satellites Uncover Ancient Mideast Road Networks; The New York Times; Jan 28, 2003.


A bit of fragrance always clings to the hand that gives the rose. -Chinese proverb

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