As Confederate monuments are coming down across American cities, President Trump is taking action to cut back national monuments in the American wilderness. This week, he announced efforts to slash the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments in Utah.
The move is meeting with demonstrations and admonitions from environmentalists and Native Americans, among others, as well as legal challenges in court. But the two sides do have one thing in common: monument, demonstration, and admonition all come from the same Latin root.
When monument first entered English in the early 1300s, it named a “tomb” or “sepulcher,” which commemorate the deceased, i.e., funeral monument. Not long after, around 1400, we find record of monument in its more familiar use, a “statue or building that memorializes a notable person or event.”
With time, the sense of monument expanded to other memorials, including in the US to lands of various historic, cultural, or scientific interest. Americans can thank the Antiquities Act of 1906 for its national monuments. Passed in 1906, the law was initially intended to preserve Native American artifacts on federal land:
Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That any person who shall appropriate, excavate, injure, or destroy any historic or prehistoric ruin or monument, or any object of antiquity, situated on lands owned or controlled by the Government of the United States, without the permission of the Secretary of the Department of the Government having jurisdiction over the lands on which said antiquities are situated, shall, upon conviction, be fined in a sum of not more than five hundred dollars or be imprisoned for a period of not more than ninety days, or shall suffer both fine and imprisonment, in the discretion of the court.
The law also authorizes the president to “declare…historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest that are situated upon the lands owned or controlled by the Government of the United States to be national monuments.”
President Theodore Roosevelt used this authority to name the country’s first national monument: Devils Tower in Wyoming. The first national park was Yellowstone, as signed into law several decades earlier by Ulysses S. Grant in 1872.
Reminders and warnings
As for the word itself, monument comes from the Latin monumentum, which variously meant “ a reminder, memorial, record, history, literary work,” and, yes, a “monument” as we think of it today. The word preserves the verb monere, “to call to mind, remind, advise, warn.” The -ment, a noun-forming suffix, is the same we see in words ranging from abandonment to wonderment.
The Latin monere also yields such words monitor, monster (monstrum, “sign, omen, object of dread”), and premonition. So, too, admonish, literally “to warn towards,” and demonstrate, “to point out.”
Monere ultimately rises up from the Proto-Indo-European *men-, “to think.” The ancient root provides mind and mental, mention and comment, and mania and mentor, among plenty of other derivatives.
It’s easy to forget monumental begins as the adjective form of monument, as we now use it metaphorically for something great in size or importance, originally, large and imposing like a monument. The Oxford English Dictionary first credits that usage to Shakespeare–“monumental mockery” was his phrase–in Troilus and Cressida, dated to 1609.
Over 400 years later, Trump, too, was met with monumental mockery when he announced his cutbacks in Utah, with demonstrators brandishing such admonitory signs like “Keep your tiny hands off our lands.”