Wednesday, December 13, 2023

Episode 217: A Rolling Stone Gathers No Moss


This week Shauna and Dan discover why a rolling stone gathers no moss. Bonus: Dan confuses moss for algae, Shauna forgets about Mick Jagger, and introverts unite. Also, did you know a rolling stone gathers no potato chips? Do with that information what you will.

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Bunny Trails: A Word History Podcast
Episode 217: A Rolling Stone Gathers No Moss
Record Date: December 11, 2023
Air Date: December 13, 2023


Welcome to Bunny Trails, a whimsical adventure of idioms and other turns of phrase.

I’m Dan Pugh

And I’m Shauna Harrison

Each week we take an idiom or other turn of phrase and try to tell the story from its entry into the English language, to how it’s used today.

Opening Hook
As a child, my answer to the question, “What do you want to do when you grow up?” was nearly always answered with, “I want to travel. Everywhere.” Of course, my grandma told me this wasn’t really a plan for the future. She would ask how I would pay for things, if I’d have a family and friends, and at some point, she would remind me that a rolling stone gathers no moss.


What does this phrase mean? Let’s start with the literal meaning. A rolling stone gathers no moss. Well, moss grows on things that don’t move. Not moving is in fact a requirement for moss to grow. So logically, if you roll a stone around, no moss will grow on it.

How about the idiom? Most dictionaries agree that this phrase is typically used with a negative connotation.

Here is the definition according to Oxford English Dictionary,
a rolling stone gathers no moss and variants:
a person who does not settle in one place will not accumulate wealth, status, friends, etc., or (alternatively, and now frequently) responsibilities and commitments.
Hence, with allusion to the proverb, moss is occasionally used to denote money.
End quote

In this phrase, the rolling stone is generally referring to a person. This person is a wanderer of sorts. They move around a lot or they just don’t stick with one set of activities for very long which could include changing jobs or hobbies or friend groups.

This phrase is sometimes used as a sort of warning… saying that a person should not remain in one place in order to avoid becoming stagnant. However, this is not as common and therefore has not made it into the definitions for major dictionaries.

This proverb begins showing up in print in the mid 1500s.

Here is a variation found in the Collected poems of Sir Thomas Wyatt circa 1542.
And on the stone that still doeth turn about
There groweth no moss: these proverbs yet do last.
End quote;;toc.depth=1;;brand=default;query=mosse#1

This tells us that the proverb was likely around prior to this publication.

In fact, a few online sources claim it was originally the proverb of Publilius Syrus, a Latin writer from around 83 BCE. However, these claims quote a translated proverb which talks about people who move around not having roots in a place. Similar sentiment but he doesn’t seem to mention stones or moss. There are also mentions of Erasmus being the originator and his proverb was merely translated from Latin to English. Some of the early works I’ll go through do reference the phrase as a known proverb. Since these are the first references in English, they will be our marker on the timeline.

An even closer match to today’s version is found in John Heywood’s A dialogue conteinyng the nomber in effect of all the prouerbes in the englishe tongue published in 1546.

The rollyng stone neuer gatherth mosse.
End quote

We see it again in The Great French Dictionary by Guy Miege published in 1688.
(Proverb) a rolling Stone never gathers moss;
A man must be settled to Something if he will get any Thing.
End quote

The phrase continues to have a large presence in the 1700s in reference materials such as language translation and proverb dictionaries which tells us it was still in use during that time. We are going to move forward to the 1800s for additional uses.

The phrase is seen in the Edwardsville spectator September 05, 1820, out of Edwardsville, Illinois. The excerpt comes from an article that was being re-shared from the Boston Weekly Magazine titled, They that marry do well.

As the rolling stone gathers no moss, so a roving wife gathers no good, but will be daily leading you into some company, party amusement, and the like, which it is the duty of every good wife to avoid.
The article continues,
Some amusements are requisite; for it is true in every stage of life, that all work and no play will make Jack a dull boy. These amusements however, should be as sparingly enjoyed as health and a proper regard to decorum will allow-for it is true that we cannot at all times excuse ourselves from the pressing solicitations of those around us.
End quote

We find a slightly different take on the phrase in the Richmond enquirer, January 18, 1821 out of Richmond, Virginia.

Sir, said he, the tide of population must flow back sooner or later. People who have long lived in ease and comfort, as we do here, are apt to become restless and fond of novelties. They fancy they may go farther and fare better. But experience too often teaches them that "rolling stones gather no moss”.
End quote

This article goes on to discuss families moving from one area or town to another and essentially talks about generational wealth and the benefit of staying in one locale.

Here is a fun segment from The Cecil Whig out of Elkton, Maryland, September 09, 1854.

SHORT LETTERs. —If brevity is the soul of wit," the following correspondence form models, we should think:

This reminds us of the celebrated correspondence between a stay-at-home mother and her absent son:
DEAR JOHN,--Come home. A rolling stone gathers no moss.
Your loving mother.
'The answer was not long in coming back. And was not long when it got back.
DEAR MOTHER, - Come here. A setting hen never gets fat.
Your loving son.
End quote

The daily herald from Brownsville, Texas includes the phrase in their February 28, 1893 edition.

It might be a good idea for some of the old landmarks who have taken as their guiding light the proverb "a rolling stone gathers no moss," to start rolling, and rub off a little of the moss.
End quote

That was the extent of the entry so we could guess at all sorts of meanings for that one.

The July 27, 1918 edition of the Evening public ledger out of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania includes a full-page spread that begins,
IN these war-days, mushroom industries are springing up overnight.
Workers are lured from home and friends by the glitter of war-time wages.
The worker who wanders from town to town, safe in the assurance that
"I can get a job, any time," is storing up trouble for the future.
End quote

The page continues with a hiring ad for a local energy company.

There is a slight play-on-words with our phrase in the section, News for Modern Women in the Detroit evening times, July 04, 1941, NIGHT EDITION, out of Detroit, Michigan.
Rolling Stone Gathers -- Not Moss, But Recipes
Women's Editor, The Detroit Times
THE OLD adage that a rolling stone gathers no moss is certainly outmoded and we find that rolling stones gather a lot of things. We have today a little volume of recipes gathered around the world by a woman who chooses to call herself just, that . . . a rolling stone.
"Recipes of a Rolling Stone" collected from all over the world by a marine officer's wife, Katherine del Valie, published by Coward-McCann.
At the beginning of each chapter is an amusing description of the different cooks that have had charge of the marine officer's household in the various places where they were stationed. and many of the recipes come from those cooks.
End quote

The final item I want to discuss before we get to our modern usages comes from the comic Little Annie Rooney by Brandon Walsh. This is in The Waterbury Democrat, May 03, 1945, out of Waterbury, Connecticut.
Two gentleman are having a conversation.





End quote

Now I did see this fun rejoinder pop up one time before in the 1700s in one of the reference documents. It was in a long list of idioms and there was no indication that they were connected in any way. Naturally, the way research goes… I spent nearly an hour trying to find the reference again with no luck! However, this does give me a new phrase to research.

Let’s move to our modern uses, right after we say thank you to our sponsors.

A Quick Thank You
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Modern Uses

There are a couple of references to this phrase that are going to land themselves in the modern section here, despite being from a time before we were born… this is because their existence fits more with the current culture and use of the term rolling stone… which is born from the phrase a rolling stone gathers no moss.

The first of these is the song Rolling Stone by jazz legend Muddy Waters. He originally recorded the song in 1950.
Well, I wish I was a catfish
Swimming in the deep blue sea
I'd have all you good-looking women
Fishin' after me, fishin' after me

Well, my mother told my father just before I was born
"I got a boy child's comin', gonna be, he's going to be a rolling stone"
End quote

Now, rumor has it that this song by Muddy Waters was the inspiration for the name of the classic rock group, The Rolling Stones. This English rock band was formed in 1962. They remain one of the most well-known rock bands of all time. We’ll hear a little more on this in a moment.

And they weren’t alone in thinking that the term makes a great name.

Bob Dylan used it for his song Like A Rolling Stone which was originally released in 1965. This single is often considered one of the greatest songs ever recorded. The chorus goes,

How does it feel?
How does it feel?
To be on your own
With no direction home
A complete unknown
Like a rolling stone?
End quote

The 2010 article Rolling Stone’s First Issue: An Anniversary Flashback by Andy Greene, which includes memories from the magazine's 1967 debut.

Forty-three years ago this week, the first issue of Rolling Stone hit stands. “You’re probably wondering what we are trying to do,” founder, editor and publisher Jann Wenner wrote in the first editor’s note. “It’s hard to say: sort of a magazine and sort of a newspaper. The name of it is Rolling Stone, which comes from an old saying: ‘A Rolling Stone gathers no moss.’ Muddy Waters used the name for a song he wrote; The Rolling Stones took their name from Muddy’s song, and “Like A Rolling Stone” was the title of Bob Dylan’s first rock and roll record.”
End quote

There are many more songs with the phrase included or mentioned but we’re going to wrap up with another iconic song that cannot go unmentioned. The Cover of the Rolling Stone by Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show was originally released in 1972.

We go to an article from Rolling Stone magazine for the details on this one. The article is titled, Dr. Hook Sang About Being on the Cover of Rolling Stone. 50 Years Ago This Week They Got Their Wish

Fifty years ago this week — on March 29, 1973, to be exact — the ragged New Jersey country-rock band Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show got their wish: Rolling Stone put them on the cover.

Written by Shel Silverstein, the former Playboy cartoonist and children’s book author, Dr. Hook’s hit “The Cover of ‘Rolling Stone’” featured eyepatch-wearing singer Ray Sawyer on lead vocals, singing lines about buying “five copies for my mother” of the magazine.
End quote
Rolling Stone article:

Clearly, if you want to live in the rock world, it pays to be a rolling stone.

Moving on from the world of music, here are a couple of other items that caught my attention.

ROLLING STONE is a poignant black and white photograph taken at Joshua Tree National Park, California by William Dey in 2021.
It is described as
A cluster of rock formations against a cloudy desert sky.
End quote

The article Moss Matters – Your Learning Guide is a Blog post hosted on Moss and Stone Gardens. It begins,
Moss Myths
Moss misconceptions abound.
Is it true a rolling stone gathers no moss? To better understand moss, I asked David Spain with Moss and Stone Gardens, Raleigh, NC, to enlighten us with the truth about mosses, dispelling many common moss myths.
End quote

The article is summed up with the answer to this question… which is yes, the proverb is true. However, there are several other myths about moss that I was surprised to learn were not based on reality.

Great Grandma Says, "A Rolling Stone Gathers No Moss!" is a book by Penelope Dyan published in 2023. Here is part of the introduction from the publisher.
Our heroine's great grandma comes to visit. And when our heroine goes out the front door to play, Great Grandma tells her, "A rolling stone gathers no moss!" Our heroine doesn't understand why her great grandma told her this; and so, she tells everyone she knows (beginning with the elephant) what her great grandma told her, to find out if they have any thoughts on the subject. And in the end, she figures it out all by herself!
End quote


Wrap up:
The idea of being a rolling stone has clearly shifted from mostly-bad to not-all-that-bad. It might be the life for some of us… especially if you’re destined to be a rock legend. In fact, it may be a requirement of achieving that legendary status. As a child, I thought that sounded like the dream, the ultimate goal in life… to be a free spirit, a wanderer. These days, I’ll take a combination of the two. Maybe let some moss grow around me but I need to get out and move, feel the freedom and wonder of far-off places. Then I’ll come back and relax in my comfortable, safe home. At least until the urge to go creeps up again!

That’s about all we have for today. If you have any thoughts on the show, or pop culture references we should have included,
reach out to us on Patreon, or comment on our website


It’s patron poll time!

Recently we posed this question to our Patrons:

Where do you show your personality in clothes?
As in, what do you wear to stand out from your peers.

Jan says
Hawaiian shirts mostly, but I did just get a pair of Whataburger canvas shoes.
End Quote

Mary shared
I am constantly changing my hair. I feel like my clothing style can be boring - mostly black with some colorful stuff sprinkled in. Oddly enough, I get compliments on my clothes quite often, but I wear the same outfits all the time. Ha! Now that I have teal peek-a-boos in my hair, the compliments never stop. Not my real intent. I just wanted to have fun. I’m glad everyone else is having fun with it as much as I am.
End quote

For me, it’s jewelry. I have a nose ring and several ear piercings. I also have a set of rings and a necklace that were made by Native American artists from turquoise and silver. I’m not sure if I’ve ever thought of them as a way to show my personality - I just like them. But I guess that’s what that means. My hair also shows my personality in that I don’t actually fix it or whatever… it just sort of exists as its own entity. And my favorite piece of clothing is a black t-shirt that’s about 3 sizes too big.


Emily shared
I’m known among my students for wearing tshirts (geeky or school spirit) with a skirt and rarely wear jeans /pants.
End Quote

Personally, I'm a silly sock guy. I mostly wear socks when dressed for work and I have a variety of wacky and silly socks, mostly inspired by nerdfighteria. I also have the Sesame Street collection from Bombas. Bombas hands-down, no competition makes the most comfortable and best feeling socks I've ever worn. They’ve also lasted the longest of any I’ve ever worn. Not a sponsor. Nor is Good.Store, where you can also get a lot of wacky socks and cool other things. And the great thing about Good.Store is that all the profits go to charity.

As a reminder, our silly polls mean absolutely nothing and are not scientifically valid. But Patrons of all levels get to take part. Head over to to take this week’s poll!


Thanks for joining us. We’ll talk to you again next week. Until then remember,

Words belong to their users.

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