What to call it?

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(Corrected thanks to alert reader Jarek Markieta who pointed out that 1, 4 and 9 are squares of the first three counting numbers, not cubes.)

(Not one but two alert readers immediately pointed out my mistake about the metal from which the top of the Washington Monument is made — aluminum and not gold.  See comments below.  I have corrected this.)

What word may correctly be used to describe this object?  People call it a “monolith”.  That’s wrong.  People call it an “obelisk”.  That’s wrong. What can we call it? The object that we are talking about is a metal column (Wikipedia article) that turned up in a dramatic and remote location in Utah.  We have all seen it, all over the news.  What word may correctly be used to describe it?

Monolith?  By far the word most frequently used in the press has been “monolith”.  The reason, no doubt, is that in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey (Wikipedia article) there was a black-colored rectangular object that was referred to as a “monolith”.  It was described as having dimensions in a ratio of 1 to 4 to 9 (the squares of the first three counting numbers).  As portrayed in the movie (and as described in the book by Arthur C. Clarke that followed), all of the edges and corners met at right angles, and the surface of the object resembled highly polished black-colored stone.  

Those who know a bit of Latin recognize that “lith” in “monolith” means “stone” (Wikipedia article).  Fun fact:  lithography means “printing using stone plates”.   Even more fun fact:  lithotripsy means “pulverizing kidney stones using shock waves”.  The “lith” in the Latin tongue came in turn from “λίθος” in Greek which transliterates as “lithos” and, oddly enough, again means “stone”.  The “mono” means “single”, connoting that the item being referred to is made of a single piece of stone (as distinguished from an item made of many pieces of stone).  The Washington Monument, for example, cannot be correctly termed a monolith, because it was built up from thousands of stone blocks.

Nothing about the term “monolith” requires that the object have any particular shape.  The object formerly known as Ayers Rock in Australia (Wikipedia) has no flat faces, is not of any particular regular geometric shape, and is not taller than it is wide.  Despite its lacking any of those features it may properly be termed a monolith for the simple reason that it is made of stone, and in particular is composed of a single piece of stone rather than more than one piece of stone.

From this it is clear that “monolith” is not a good word for the object found in Utah.  From the earliest news reports, there is no question that the object was not made of stone but was made of shiny metal.  “Monolith” is just wrong.

Obelisk?  The second most frequently used term for this object that turned up in Utah is “obelisk”.  This, too, fails.  An obelisk is defined as “a tall, four-sided, narrow tapering monument which ends in a pyramid-like shape or pyramidion at the top” (Wikipedia article).  It comes from the Greek “ὀβελός” which means “pointed pillar”.  

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Cleopatra’s Needle in Central Park in Manhattan (Wikipedia article) is a good example of an obelisk.  It possesses the requisite four-sided cross section.  It has the required pyramid-shaped pointed top.  (Fun fact:  the pyramid-shaped top of the Washington Monument, which is also correctly termed an obelisk, is made of solid aluminum.)  

From this it is clear that the object that turned up in Utah may not correctly be termed an obelisk.  A first reason why the term cannot be properly applied to the Utah object is that its cross section was triangular, not four-sided.  A second reason why the term cannot be properly applied to the Utah object is that its top was flat — it lacked the requisite pyramid-shaped pointed top of an obelisk.

Orthostat?  Regular readers of my blog surely added the term “orthostat” to their everyday vocabulary after I wrote in July of 2020 about “orthostats” (blog article) .  An orthostat is defined as “a large stone with a more or less slab-like shape that has been artificially set upright”. 

A thing may thus be property termed an orthostat only if it “has been artificially set upright”.  The object formerly know as Ayers Rock fails this test because it is a naturally occurring feature.

It will be appreciated that a cube-shaped block cannot be an orthostat because an orthostat is required to be taller than it is wide.  A cube has the same ratio of height to width no matter which way you orient it.   Saying this a different way, it is impossible to set a cube “upright” because no matter which way you orient it, it presents the same appearance.  

Of the three terms just discussed, I think “orthostat” comes closer to being an appropriate term.  But here, too, the candidate term fails on at least two aspects.  One thing is that I doubt that an object with a triangular cross section can really be termed “slab-like”.  But even if we set that concern aside, there is still the pesky problem that to be an orthostat, the thing must be “stone”, which the Utah object was not.

One wishes that some single word, preferably having many syllables and more preferably being rarely used and chiefly in dramatic contexts, could be found that could be correctly applied to the Utah object.   Regrettably if we set a goal of using words correctly, we cannot correctly term it a “monolith” or an “obelisk” or an “orthostat”.  

The best I can do is “metal column” or perhaps “tall thin metal monument”.  

Can you offer a good word to use for this Utah object?  You get points for your suggestion if it is a single word rather than a phrase, and you get points for high Scrabble value (rarely used letters) and you get points for a high syllable count.  Most of all you get points if the word is otherwise rarely used or has an bit of an exotic quality about it or some sense of mystery.  Please post a comment below.

17 Replies to “What to call it?”

  1. Carl,
    George’s monument was topped in 1884 with a 2.85 kg cap of “pure aluminum,” not gold. That was before Hall, Heroult, and Bayer’s discoveries on Al refining. J.S. Gordon’s 2016 book on the Washington monument and other obelisks is a good read.

    1. Thank you for posting. The problem is its cross-section is (was) an equilateral triangle. Not a square or a rectangle.

      If we are going to name it merely as to its shape, the term would be “triangular prism”. I would hope that a way could be found not merely to name its shape, but also to communicate something about the remote and dramatic setting as well as its striking shiny metal surface.

      1. Thanks. That was not clear to me from the perspective of the photo.

        I like your “right equilateral trigonal prism”, but was it a right equilateral trigonal prismatic solid or a right equilateral trigonal prismatic chamber?

        1. The news reports failed to give details like this, which of course every alert reader would like to know.

          Photographs of the monument show small rivets or screws along the long edges. And the person or persons who absconded with the monument left behind a triangular piece of metal that is thought to have been the top face of the monument. All of this tells me that it was almost certainly hollow. Thus using your terminology, it was a chamber, not a solid.

  2. LAT: a Hindi word for “an isolated pillar.” I have never seen one except in a crossword puzzle.
    More prosaically, just PILLAR?

    1. “Equilateral prism” unfortunately has a word missing in the middle — it would be “equilateral triangular prism”. Otherwise it could be a prism of any equilateral polygon.

      “Trigonal prism” pretty much captures the geometric shape. “Equilateral trigonal prism” does better.

      The other thing is that if one wishes to characterize a prism fully, one must also take a position as to whether the axis of the prism is or is not at a right angle to the end faces. So we could nail that one down by calling it a “right equilateral trigonal prism”. (Some prisms, in longitudinal cross section, are a parallelogram rather than a rectangle.)

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