Grand in the eyes of admirers, gauche in the eyes of critics, the great "G" that appeared recently on the grass of Alexandria's George Washington Masonic National Memorial is somewhat puzzling to many passersby, who wonder what it means.

The Masons say they put the 60-by-70-foot symbol with the letter in the middle to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the death of George Washington later this year, so one might gather that the "G" is for George.

Takeshi Kawase did. "I guess it stands for George Washington," said the 28-year-old computer programmer, who was walking his dogs within sight of the giant--some would even say gargantuan--concrete letter.

That was Robert Shelburne's guess, too, as the 46-year-old economist was going past the memorial, located off King Street near Old Town, to the King Street Metro station.

"I assume it stands for George," he said. "I thought it was strange that there wasn't a 'W.' "

You know, for Washington. But then, that would make sense only if the "G" was for George. And you get the gong if that's your guess.

In addition to commemorating our first president, the Masons erected the giant "G" on the lawn last month to get people's attention, to dispel the myth of the Masons as a secret society.

"This is one of the landmarks of Alexandria, but a lot of people still don't quite understand what it is," said George Seghers, the executive secretary-treasurer of the Memorial Association. "It was just a way of getting some attention to the building," even from the air, where passengers on flights into National Airport can glimpse the letter from the plane.

It is garnering attention, but maybe not quite in the way the Masons intended.

"It's a big 'G' and it's in your face and no one knows what it stands for," grumbled lawyer Charles Christopher, 41, who lives a few blocks away and finds the neighborhood addition worse than goofy.

"I don't like it," he said. "It's too big. It's almost fascist. I'm sort of shocked."

The letter is the symbol of the group, which is "a universal brotherhood of men dedicated to serving God, family, fellowman and country," according to its literature.

"The Masons are a kind of intellectual and business group developed in Europe during the Enlightenment," said Fred Flick, 52, an economist with the National Association of Realtors, who also passes by on his way to the Metro. "They were sort of anti-aristocrat. Mozart was a Mason. So were Jefferson and Washington."

All true. But does he know what the "G" stands for?

Gimmicky? Groovy? Green space?

"I don't know what the 'G' means," he answered. "It probably doesn't mean God."

But indeed it does. The greater mystery is that it also stands for something else, something nearly synonymous with God during the Enlightenment, according to Seghers.

Which brings us to the history of the Masons. The organization began as a guild of stonemasons who created Europe's cathedrals during the Middle Ages. According to the Masons, these men were keepers of the highest moral and professional standards, and their work was equated with virtue. Slowly, the craftsmen admitted respected men of other professions to their group, maintaining a devotion to God and an ethical life.

Their symbol reflects the tools and skills the masons employed, one of which was a knowledge of geometry.

Geometry. Believe it or not, the Masons say the "G" also stands for geometry.

Surrounding the "G" are two tools of the old stonemasons, both symbolic of the philosophy of today's Masons. Below the letter is a square, used to check the two sides of a stone for proper shape and symbolic of squaring one's actions before God and others, according to Seghers. Above the "G" is a compass, which Seghers said is symbolic of "keeping passions within due bounds."

And they are not a secret society. They're just quiet in their ways.

"We really do not solicit membership," Seghers said. "We believe that free masonry is something you should want to join. You shouldn't hear about it on TV. The reason you should want to join is if you know someone who's a Mason who you respect."

In 1959, the Masons numbered over 4 million strong in the United States, but today stand at half that figure.