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Frank Herbert's Dune book begins with a sentence that describes Castle Caladan as a pile of stone that has been home to 26 generations of Atreides Dukes. Not being a native English speaker, I am left to wonder as of what does it mean. Does the word "pile" here really mean that the castle was actually a ruin?

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up vote 3 down vote accepted

I don't believe we're meant to think the castle is in ruins. "Pile of stone" here is serving as both a literal description — anything made of stone can be described as a pile of stone, it's just that some piles are more, um, ordered than others — and as a put-down of stone castles and the social class that lives in them.

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In the context of the novel, it's not so much a put-down as a way to say the castle is old fashioned, with everything else being made of plasteel or some sort of handwavium. – congusbongus Jul 30 '13 at 5:14
@congusbongus, if you find it necessary to call something old-fashioned, guess what: it's a put-down. – Marthaª Jul 30 '13 at 13:23

Pile can also mean castle.

As you say, given the commonest modern meaning of pile, Herbert’s phrase evokes the image of something haphazard, maybe even ruined.

But pile also has an older meaning, given by the OED as “A stronghold, a castle, esp. a small castle or tower […] Now arch. and rare.” Though rare, it’s still used in a few well-known phrases — most notably “ancestral pile” — enough so that I’m pretty sure Herbert had this meaning primarily in mind.

However, heap has been the primary meaning for long enough that I suspect all modern use of the castle sense has become somewhat coloured by connotations of haphazardness, disorder, etc.; certainly it’s generally used for slightly humorous effect. (I seem to recall PG Wodehouse being quite keen on the phrase, though I can’t remember any specific examples.)

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The Compact Oxford Dictionary, in its entry for pile, mentions the second core sense is: "a large imposing building". Because the phrase says: "pile of stone", and not "pile of stones", that suggests it is something whole, unified, single and made of stone. – user48764 Jul 30 '13 at 3:43

Though "pile of stones" literally implies a ruin, the author in your example uses it to express his disdain about Castle Caladan, or at least to describe it in a humorous way. He thinks it's nothing special.

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