monolith

On November 18, 2020, a monolith was discovered in a canyon in northern Utah. Since then, similar monoliths have been observed in quite a lot of places, most of them unreported, but the latest one to make the news was on a hill in San Francisco, appearing on Christmas Day, 2020. The monoliths have been made of various materials; the first one was made of metal, as have many of the others, while the San Francisco Christmas one was made of gingerbread with frosting and gumdrops, supported by plywood… yes? I see a question in the back?

No, I’m not an idiot. …Yes? The hand over there?

Yes, that’s right, they were made of various materials, and most were not made of stone, probably because that would be very heavy and expensive. …Yes?

I am absolutely certain I am not brain-dead. Are there any adults with questions? …Yes?

Yes, I know what the dictionary definition of monolith is, and I know the etymology too. It’s from Greek roots; the mono means ‘one’ (as in monorail) and the lith means ‘stone’ (as in lithograph). The word monolith was confected in the early-mid 1800s as both an adjective and a noun to describe or name something made of a single stone. Now, technically, any pocket-sized soapstone carving you can buy at a souvenir shop meets that definition, but the implication is that a monolith is a pillar or a monument or some other massive thing made of a single piece of stone. And within a – please, I’m trying to talk here, and shouting “Hah!” is not a contribution – within a half a century, monolith was being used also for things that resemble great big single-stone pieces but are not in fact made of stone.

Etymology is not destiny. Meanings are not carved in stone. The expansion and shifting of meaning is nothing new. It often happens when some new thing reminds people of a well-established existing thing. It may have a resemblance based on attributed that do not include the original defining attribute but are salient aspects of the particular thing referred to. It can travel quite a bit sometimes – consider that ladies’ dressing tables used to have a little piece of lace on them, and the tables were then named for the lace, and then the room in which ladies came to do their washing and makeup was named after the table, and then the most striking appliance in that room took on the name, and that is how we call a flushing waste disposal a toilet, a word that comes from a little piece of lace, toilette.

So you know, when people are calling these things monoliths, what they’re thinking of, right? The great cultural reference is the monoliths from 2001: A Space Odyssey, directed by Stanley Kubrick, written by Arthur C. Clarke. Those met the definition, at least apparently, of a single solid block of stone:

Except that they somehow seem to give off signals. So there may be more within than meets the eye.

It’s sort of like the music Kubrick chose for the scene: the Kyrie from the Requiem by György Ligeti. It may seem like a monolith of sound, shifting and waving but wordless, atonal, without rhythm. It is none of these things. Here, look at the score as it is performed:

It’s astoundingly complex (and I would not want to have to sing in the choir that performs it!). And in the same way, even an undivided single stone is complex (ask a geologist), and so too are the many other things that are described offhand as monoliths (including various corporations, political organizations, social and cultural groups – though the word is as often brought in to be denied: members of the group in question “are not a monolith”). And words are not monoliths, and language certainly isn’t a monolith.

But a flat-faced towering structure of metal, or gingerbread, or whatever else? Look, you can decide you want to call it a monometal or a monomelopita (for the gingerbread) or whatever else, but you really can’t be surprised if people in general see the resemblance to the 2001 monoliths and borrow the term rather than digging through Greek roots. You may feel, accurately, that the word monolith has gone the way of toilet… but it hasn’t gone in the toilet, and you needn’t bother trying to toss it there. It wouldn’t fit anyway.

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