A rolling stone gathers no moss

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"A rolling stone gathers no moss"

A rolling stone gathers no moss is an old proverb, credited to Publilius Syrus, who in his Sententiae states, People who are always moving, with no roots in one place or another, avoid responsibilities and cares. A common modern meaning is that a person must stay active to avoid stagnation.

In English[edit]

The conventional English translation appeared in John Heywood's collection of Proverbs in 1546. [Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable] also credits [Erasmus], and relates it to other Latin proverbs, Planta quae saepius transfertus non coalescit or Saepius plantata arbor fructum profert exiguum, which mean that a frequently replanted plant or tree (respectively) yields little fruit.[1] It appears that the original intent of the proverb saw the growth of moss as desirable, and that the intent was to condemn mobility as unprofitable.

The contemporary interpretation of equating moss to undesirable stagnation has turned the traditional understanding on its head. Erasmus's proverb gave the name "rolling stone" to people who are agile (mobile) and never get rusty due to constant motion.

"A day in the moss" refers to cutting peat in bogs or mosses.[2] Metaphorically, this refers to the hard work in preparation for winter. An itinerant "rolling stone" will not likely feel the timely need to apply for access to a community's peat bog.[3]


The saying may not be authentic to Syrus; the Latin form usually given, Saxum volutum non obducitur musco, does not appear in the edited texts of Publilius Syrus. It does, however, appear with similar wording in Erasmus' Adagia, which was first published around 1500.[4] It is also given as "Musco lapis volutus haud obducitur", and in some cases as "Musco lapis volutus haud obvolvitur".[5]

The literal meaning of the statement itself is true. The television show MythBusters showed that after six months of constantly rolling a stone does not grow moss.[6]

In psychiatry[edit]

Because it is so well known, this saying is one of the most common proverbs used in psychological tests for mental illness, particularly schizophrenia, to look for difficulty with abstraction. American research[7] conducted in the 1950s between Air Force basic airmen and hospitalized Veterans Administration patients with schizophrenia found that the way a person interprets proverbs can be used to determine abstraction ability. The lack of abstraction ability in these studies was statistically significantly higher in the VA patients and it has thus been construed as indicating pathology. As persons with mental illness are generally believed to demonstrate "concrete" thinking (a tendency to interpret abstract concepts literally) the research results have, in practice, often been improperly generalized to suggest proverbs alone can be a sufficient indicator of mental illness.

A "concrete" interpretation of the proverb "a rolling stone gathers no moss" would simply restate the proverb in different words, rather than delivering any metaphorical meaning.[8]

Cultural references[edit]

In literature[edit]

  • In Swallows and Amazons by the English children's author Arthur Ransome, the fictional Captain Flint alludes to the proverb by calling his memoirs "Mixed Moss by A Rolling Stone". The theft of the manuscript of the fictional book is a major theme of the real book.
  • In The Rolling Stones, a novel by science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein first published in 1952, which a family travels throughout the star system looking for adventure and money. Hazel Stone, the grandmother, says "this city life is getting us covered with moss" when buying their ship. The theme carries throughout the book.

In music[edit]

  • The Temptations' song, "Papa Was a Rollin' Stone"
  • Referenced in Don McLean's "American Pie" in the line "and moss grows fat on a rolling stone"
  • Name of popular band The Rolling Stones
  • Name of music magazine Rolling Stone
  • 7 member K-Pop group BTS, (RR: Bangtan Sonyeondan) (Hangul: 방탄소년단) wrote the song 'Intro: NEVERMIND', from their album: 'The Most Beautiful Moment in Life, Part 2', 2015. In the bridge of the song, (민윤기) Suga states: "구르지 않는 돌에는 필시 끼기 마련이거든 이끼", meaning: "Moss surely grows on a stone that doesn't roll".
  • The union activist Joe Hill's last will, written in the form of a song in 1915, states: "My kin don’t need to fuss and moan / Moss does not cling to rolling stone."[9]
  • "Rollin' Stone" is a 1950 song recorded by blues legend Muddy Waters. The single went on to inspire both the band "The Rolling Stones" and the magazine "Rolling Stone"
  • "Like a Rolling Stone" is a 1965 song by Bob Dylan from his album Highway 61 Revisited. The song is widely regarded as one of the best songs of all time.[10]
  • Eminem, song Mockingbird: "Papa was a rollin' stone"

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable Archived October 26, 2006, at the Wayback Machine, sub. title "Rolling Stone".
  2. ^ "A day in the moss".
  3. ^ Dictionary of the Scots Language Sc. 1825 J. Mitchell Scotsman's Library 118: "Any gentleman, whether possessing property or not, who was popular, and ready to assist the poor in their difficulties, might expect a day in the moss, as they were wont to term it, and could have them longer for payment." http://www.dsl.ac.uk/entry/snd/moss
  4. ^ Adagia, Erasmus, at Bibliotheca Augustana.
  5. ^ Jerónimo Martín Caro y Cejudo, Refranes, y modos de hablar castellanos (1792), p. 288 [1]
  6. ^ [2] Annotated MythBusters
  7. ^ Clinical Manual for Proverbs Test, 1956, Dr Gorham, Missoula MT., Psychological Test Specialists
  8. ^ "Proverb interpretation in forensic evaluations", William H. CampbellMD, MBA and A. Jocelyn RitchieJD, PhD, AAPL Newsletter, American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, Jan 2002 Vol. 27 No. 1, pp. 24-27
  9. ^ "The Death of Joe Hill". The New York Times. Retrieved March 16, 2018.
  10. ^ https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-lists/500-greatest-songs-of-all-time-151127/the-rolling-stones-i-cant-get-no-satisfaction-38617/