Tuesday, June 24, 2014

What is a Plinth?

When I recently reviewed a book (Organizing Exhibitions by Freda Matassa. London, 2014)  on organizing museum  exhibits.  One several  of the check lists are items the curators need.  As the book was written by a British author, several of the choices were more British than American English, but I was able to figure everything out except for the word, “plinth.”  One way to figure out is from context or a glossary in the book.  Here are three examples from the book and none offer clues as to the meaning.  On page 47 is list of installation items, "display cases and plinths."  On page 72, A wide plinth can act as a deterrent." On page 133, "Items on a plinth or shelf can be placed one metre from the edge ..."   I looked for "plinth" in my colegiate dictionary and even though it had the word and a definition, the meaning was not clear.

I looked up "plinth" in the Oxford English Dictionary, which reports “plinth” is on unknown origins.  It appears in ancient Latin and Greek as well as modern French, Spanish, Greek, and German.  If it is a loan word, the original language is not Latin,  Greek or a Semitic language.  OED says the first English use was in the book, The first and chief groundes of architecture vsed in all the auncient and famous monymentes  by John Shute .  1st edition, 1563.  (Note in 1563 English spelling had not yet been standardized.) In folio X is a picture of column with all the parts labeled. The “Plinthus” is the solid support at the bottom of the column.   In architecture it is clear that the word means the right prism (rectangular solid) used as a support for at column.

In room decoration a plinth is the base along a wall that prevents chairs from hitting the wall.  An early description of the process of creating a plinth for a room is found in the article, Agricultural architecture and engineering. No. ix by R. S. Hunt page 14 in Journal of Agriculture,  July 1853 (Google books: http://books.google.com/books?id=1VI523q3l2wC&pg=PA14&dq=Farmer%27s+Magazine+plinths&hl=en&sa=X&ei=YfapU-juJdi2yATXjYIg&ved=0CDkQ6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q=%20plinth&f=false)   Today one can go to Ikea or Home Depot and purchase material for block plinths to be used as molding or plinth that can used as a support for a post or column.

None of these uses of the word fit what “plinth” means for museum exhibits.  I looked in a catalog for library and museum supplies.  A plinth is a rectangular solid (right prism) that supports museum display cases.   A plinth could also be used inside a display case to hold the item on display.  The supplier uses “plinth” as a shape to describe the base of a display case.


“Fabric deck and back panel; glass shelves; archival materials; fluorescent light hood; 6" plinth base”

It is interesting that most of the companies that sell plinths for museums are in Great Britain. Perhaps in the US  most people just use other words such as “base,” “pedestal, “ or “support?” I know what a "plinth" is but I am not sure if the word is more British than American usage.  Perhaps you should ask your colleagues if they can use "plinth" in a sentence?

6/29/2014   Addendum

Yesterday I had a guest from London join us for lunch.  I asked him if he ever heard of the word, "plinth" and did he think it was a British word.  He said that he heard of the word because in Trafalgar Square in central London is a group of three statues.  The fourth plinth was supposed to hold a statue of William IV, but they ran out of money.  For 150 years the fate of the empty plinth was debated.  In 1999 it was decided that it would be used for the temporary display of contemporary art.

6/30/2014  Comment received.  Included with permission.

A new Brit/American usage difference to add to my list. Yes, "plinth" for Brits is the normal word for the thing you stick a statue on. I do believe we use the expression "to put s.o. on a pedestal", although you would have to check with somebody whose British English is less contaminated than mine!

 John Williams
Johns Hopkins University SAIS Europe
Bologna, Italy

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