“Monolith” vs. “Megalith”: What’s The Difference?

Recently, journalists and social media users were fascinated by large hunks of metal referred to as monoliths suddenly appearing and just as suddenly disappearing around the world.

While it seems that these mysterious objects may just be part of some publicity stunt or marketing scheme, they’ve inspired people to ask one important question: what the heck is a monolith, anyway? Does it have anything to do with a megalith?

These odd structures may not be a sign of alien life but they have provided a great opportunity to dust off the old knowledge of Greek roots and solve the mystery of what a monolith actually is.

What is a monolith?

According to the definition, a monolith is ”an obelisk, column, large statue, etc., formed of a single block of stone” or “a single block or piece of stone of considerable size, especially when used in architecture or sculpture.” From what we have heard from people who have seen the mysterious objects up close or dismantled them, the recent structures definitely qualify as monoliths.

Arguably the most famous monolith from popular culture is the mysterious black monolith that appears early in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 science fiction film 2001: A Space Odyssey. In the film, this bizarre alien artifact kicks off the evolution of humans from apes. The monolith isn’t in the film for more than a moment but it has left a lasting impression on many a sci-fi aficionado.

The word monolith is also used in the figurative sense when discussing all varieties of something as if they were one unified thing. Often, we warn against oversimplifying ideas by acting as if there was one single monolith that acts as a unifier when in reality no such thing exists. For example, we know that the religion of Christianity (just like many other religions) has many different branches or denominations rather than being a monolithic set of beliefs that every single Christian on Earth adheres to. As another example, the philosophy of feminism is not a monolith in which every single feminist shares some set of ideas but is a general philosophy in which every individual feminist has their own personal ideas and beliefs about feminism itself.

This metaphorical sense of monolith is also often used when referring to politics and demographics. For example, Black and Latino voters are not monoliths that all vote exactly the same. Instead, these groups are heterogenous, with different and diverse needs, priorities, beliefs, opinions, and experiences. A Cuban-American in Florida may vote much differently than a Mexican-American living in Texas, just as a Black voter living in downtown Detroit may vote much differently than a Black voter living in the California suburbs.

Where does monolith come from?

As mysterious as monoliths can often be, the origin of the word is actually quite simple: it comes from the Greek word monólithos, meaning “made of one stone,” and is formed from a combination of the roots mono- and -lith.

The root mono- means “one” and is used in a large number of words that refer to an item that involves only one thing or are composed of just a single entity. We look at a few examples of words that use mono- in this article, such as (the belief that there is only one God) and monorail (a vehicle that only uses one rail).

However, mono- appears in many other words such as monopoly (a situation in which one person or business has exclusive control over something) and monochrome (an art piece that uses multiple shades of only one color). When used before a vowel, mono- is shortened to mon- as in the word monocle (an eyeglass that only covers one eye).

The root -lith is a combining form that means “stone” and is used in words that have something to do with stone or rocks. For example, -lith appears in the words Paleolithic (“old stone”) and Neolithic (“new stone”) that archeologists use when referring to different periods of the Stone Age. The root -lith also appears in the word megalith, a word we will take a moment to look at more thoroughly.

What is a megalith?

According to the definition, a megalith is “a stone of great size, especially in ancient construction work, as the Cyclopean masonry, or in prehistoric Neolithic remains, as dolmens or menhirs.”

While this  definition gives a few examples, it’s also worth noting the humongous stones that make up the monument Stonehenge are also megaliths. Ancient monuments like Stonehenge that are made of massive megaliths are referred to as megalithic monuments. 

The mega- in megalith means “huge” or “abnormally large” and we use this root in many words for huge or gigantic things. In this article, we explore some examples such as megachurch (an extremely large church) and megafauna (very large animals). Mega- is used in other words, too, such as megavitamin (something that involves a large amount of vitamins) and megaphone (a device that makes a large noise).

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More examples of -lith

Another example of -lith referring to stone can be seen in the word bilith, a structure that is formed from two (bi-) stones (-lith). The root -lith isn’t just used to refer to actual rocks and stones, however. It is also widely used in medicine to refer to stone-like deposits in the body, such as a nephrolith (a “kidney stone”).

You can find more examples of words that use -lith in this article, such as the words gastrolith (a stone-like concentration in the stomach) and tonsillolith (a stone-like concentration in a tonsil). Other words that use -lith include regolith (rock found in the earth’s mantle) and rhinolith (a stone-like concentration in the nasal cavity).

This root doesn’t just appear at the ends of words, though. Some words that use lith- as a prefix include lithectomy (surgery that removes stones from organs or ducts) and lithify (to turn something into stone or rock).

Putting it all together, a monolith is a structure that is made of one stone and a megalith is a very large stone. While these two terms could possibly overlap when discussing an especially large monolith, these two words almost always refer to different kinds of objects. The word megalith, in particular, is usually used to describe very old or prehistoric monuments.

Make your vocabulary rock-solid by learning more about the roots discussed in this article.


Lith- or -lith