If I have, for example, a model ship, model railroad, model car, etc. what is the best word to refer to the original from what this model is created?

I'm also looking for a context-free version, to use it in a heading and the table of contents, this is why I'm looking for an alternative for "model" or "prototype".

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    You used the word in your question: the "original". Dec 21, 2011 at 14:26
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    Yes, but that can have a lot of meanings. Is there something that expresses that it is the "example" for the model? Like in the German word "Vorbild"?
    – vsz
    Dec 21, 2011 at 14:30
  • I would think that most of the time the meaning of "original" is fairly clear from context. In the cases where it's not, you would make it clear by saying "the original for this model", "the original ship", or something similar. Dec 21, 2011 at 14:37
  • Part of the difficulty is that 'model' is what you call a person who stands still to be copied in the artwork, which is contrary to the meaning for a model ship.
    – Mitch
    Dec 21, 2011 at 15:23
  • Many, many (most?) English words have multiple meanings. Don't be afraid to use them anyway, but make sure the context makes the meaning clear.
    – slim
    Dec 21, 2011 at 15:37

4 Answers 4


Prototype has the exact meaning you are looking for, although you must be careful because in common usage it also means an experimental version upon which a more polished version can be based.

If you can clear up the difference using context, then prototype is fine:

The HMS Victory is the prototype for this scale model.


I wasn't sure the mechanism would work, so I made a prototype from scrap wood first.

You could also use archetype, precedent, blueprint or simply original.

Do look up all of these words in the dictionary, for the fine detail of their various meanings; there are subtle differences.

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    en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prototype: 'In the field of scale modeling (which includes model railroading, vehicle modeling, airplane modeling, military modeling, etc.), a prototype is the real-world basis or source for a scale model...' However, this usage is confined to the Scale Modeling domain.
    – Kris
    Dec 21, 2011 at 14:51
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    Unless you are addressing people from the field of Scale Modeling specifically, you must steer clear of this term.
    – Kris
    Dec 21, 2011 at 14:57
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    "Blueprint" is generally understood to mean the plans or diagrams from which something is built, not another physical object that it is based on. I see this listed as definition #4 on thefreedictionary.com, but I think that's a pretty rare usage and should be used carefully.
    – Jay
    Dec 21, 2011 at 15:03
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    Actually I'm going to be more bullish. A prototype is the basis for copies or derivative works, whether it was built for that purpose or not. Whether I base my model on HMS Victory, or on a makeshift model, that basis can always be referred to as a prototype. Also applies in more abstract concepts such as philosophy. Google "the prototype for".
    – slim
    Dec 21, 2011 at 15:13
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    @Kris the issue is that a few people are suggesting that "original" is better. "Prototype" is more precise, and therefore better for me. I'm all for people using more precise words when they're available.
    – slim
    Dec 21, 2011 at 15:22

If you are specifically addressing people from the field of Scale Modeling, who are expected to be familiar with the special import of the word, you may use prototype.

For the general public, you would better refer to it as the original.


As Peter says, I think "original" is the best word in general for this idea.

In one of those curious twists of the English language, "model" is another commonly-used term. Thus one might say, "Sally Jones was the model for this sculpture" or "I used the HMS Victory as the model for a toy boat that I made." But then we have the catch that "model" is also used to mean the copy! It would be perfectly accurate to say, "I used HMS Victory as the model for my scale model" -- perfectly accurate but very confusing! And then if you tried to explain differences between the original and the replica, would you say, "The model was made of wood but the model is made of plastic", etc?


There are several words which would do.

According to Wordnet, original, archetype, and pilot can all be used in the sense of something that serves as a model or a basis for making copies. Pilot won't work; it's normally used when a small scale model is created before the full scale vehicle, but you're interested in the opposite circumstance.

Google Translate offers model, example, and paragon as translations of the German word Vorbild you asked about in your comment. Paragon means a perfect example of something, and you are not looking for a word with that limited sense.

Here are some sentences about model trains which use original, archetype, model, and example to mean something that serves as a model or a basis for making copies. Note that model can mean either the the original or the copy.

  • Pictured is a 1:8 scale replica of the original locomotive designed by Matthias N. Forney.
  • The archetype for today's modern model trains is the Birmingham Dribbler.
  • The model for this electric train is the "Train Eclair de luxe": the first Orient Express.
  • This HO gauge caboose is an example of the typical crew cabin of the 1970's.

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