Aspiring to Plinthhood
© 19 September 2012 Luther Tychonievich
Licensed under Creative Commons: CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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A beautiful word, an important function.


There are some words I find pleasant in the mouth, like “‍elbow‍” and “‍phlebotomy‍”. Among these is “‍plinth‍”. I do not think plinths have ever been a subject of common conversation; like phlebotomy, the average person can live year to year without ever giving the plinths any thought.

A plinth is a squared piece of stone used as the base of a statue or pillar. Etymologically it simply meant a squared stone or brick; and in more recent times it has spilled over into polylithic squared bases; but these side uses are relatively rare.

Plinths serve an important function: they are above-ground foundations. The pillar or statue atop needs a smooth solid footing to remain erect. The ground beneath is uneven and changeable. We could cut away at the ground to reduce its motion; we could modify the statue or pillar to have a broader foot; but the plinth is a less invasive solution. A single piece of stone, it provides a solid and level base for its load; broad and flat, it can tolerate the uneven ground beneath.

As I reflected on the word “‍plinth‍” again this morning From time to time I will try out phrases in my head, more-or-less randomly pulling words from my memory and seeing if I can structure a suitable phrase. Plinth was one of the words under scrutiny this morning. I thought of its parallels to human interactions. I have oft heard the phrase “‍behind every successful man is a woman‍”; this cliché is not supported in my personal observations but I have observed a gender-neutral prevalence of behind-the-scenes supporters. I myself have served for many years as a ward clerk and stake executive secretary and had a chance to play some of those supporting roles. There is joy in being the plinth to someone else’s greatness.

When I think of good parents, I think of plinths for their children. There are many good ways to go about raising a child but a common thread is the provision of a stable footing, a smoothing out the changeable roughness of the world without digging a protective trench from which the child must crawl later in life. I hope I can be half the plinth my parents where to me.

I spend a fair amount of mental effort these days trying to decide what category of academic jobs to pursue. In general, professors find some balance between teaching classes and running research labs. Performing research is largely the bailiwick of graduate students, but research-focused professors serve as a plinth for those students, providing a solid foundation on top of the chaotic world of funding, research interest fads, old boys networks, and so on. My two graduate advisors have been excellent plinths for me. I aspire to plinthhood, but teaching is an unparalleled delight. What type of job ought I pursue?

I posit that we each can and ought to be a bit more like a plinth day to day. We can smooth over a few more bumps and changes and provide a bit smoother and more solid foundation for others to stand upon. Let us each strive to become that unnoticed block of stone that allows majesty to stand tall and sure for all to see.

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