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, avoid responsibilities and cares. As such, the proverb is often interpreted as referring to figurative nomads who avoid taking on responsibilities or cultivating or advancing their own knowledge, experience, or culture. Another interpretation equates "moss" to "stagnation"; as such the proverb can also refer to those who keep moving as never lacking for fresh ideas or creativity.

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 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, after the course of six months, confirmed that a rolling 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.
  • "The Rolling Stones"(1952) by Science Fiction author Robert A. Heinlein, In 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. It's a theme throughout the book.

In Music[edit]

  • 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]
  • Ma Rainey, the blues singer, recorded a song in the 1920s, "Slow Driving Moan" in which she sings, "I'm an old rolling stone, looking to find my home sweet home".
  • The blues musician Muddy Waters wrote a 1948 song called "Rollin' Stone", which contains the lyrics: "I got a boy child's comin,
    He's gonna be, he's gonna be a rollin stone"[10][11] His 1955 recording "Mannish Boy" includes the phrase "I'm a rollin' stone".
  • Leon Payne's 1949 hit Rolling stone from A shot in the dark: Tennessee Jive
  • Hank Williams's 1952 hit "Lost Highway" (originally by Leon Payne, recorded 1948) begins "I'm a rollin stone, all alone and lost, for a life of sin I've paid the cost."
  • The Beatles used the words "Like a Rolling Stone" three times in the beginning of their song "Dig It" released on the 1970 album "Let it Be".
  • Don McLean's "American Pie" in 1971 claims that "… moss grows fat on a rolling stone, but that's not how it used to be."
  • The song "Can't Come In" by The Congos off their 1977 release "Heart of the Congos" features the lyrics "The rolling stone, gathers no moss."
  • Sublime's 1996 song "Same in the End" alludes, "Daddy was a rollin' rollin' stone. He rolled away one day and then he never came home."
  • Lucky Dube also uses the proverb in his song "Rolling Stone," from the album The Way It Is released in 1999: "I'm a rolling stone, 'Cause a rolling stone, Gathers no moss."
  • The Dave Matthews Band alludes to the negative connotation of the phrase in the 2002 song "Busted Stuff": "A rolling stone gathers no moss, but leaves a trail of busted stuff."
  • Noah Gundersen references this proverb in his 2008 song "Moss on a Rolling Stone": "I believe moss on a rolling stone is better than the rust that's growing on my home."
  • Jay-Z alludes to the proverb in his song "Guns and Roses", which features Lenny Kravitz.
  • Bruno Mars references the proverb in his song "Runaway Baby": "Your poor little heart will end up alone, 'cause Lord knows I'm a rolling stone."
  • Curren$y uses the proverb in his song "On My Plane", off his debut album "This Aint No Mixtape".
  • Killer Mike in the song "the whole world" by Outkast ft. Killer Mike, says "I'm rollin' my stone, gatherin' no moss".
  • Passenger in the song "Rolling Stone" relates to the proverb in lot of its lines.

In Television[edit]

  • In the SpongeBob SquarePants episode "The Algae's Always Greener," Sheldon J. Plankton states that "A rolling stone gathers no algae."
  • Mythbusters did an experiment to test the proverb in the episode "Breaking Glass". They verified that a rolling stone indeed gathers no moss.
  • In an episode of NCIS: LA, Sam Hanna & G. Callen argue over the meaning of the proverb.
  • In an episode of 'All in the Family', Archie said, "A rolling stone gathers no moss", and the answer from another character was that a rolling will get you a hell of a bruise.
  • In the movie "One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest", when confronted by a team of psychiatrists McMurphy (played by Jack Nicholson) is asked to explain the meaning of the proverb "A rolling stone gathers no moss".

Other media references[edit]

  • A recurring GEICO radio advertisement poses this question, "Does a rolling stone gather no moss?" The sound of a tumbling rock is heard, and it follows up, "No moss. You're going to have to trust me on this."
  • The phrase was used by Lt. Kaffee (Tom Cruise) in A Few Good Men.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, sub. title "Rolling Stone".
  2. ^ http://gelvinca.ning.com/profiles/blogs/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. ^ See NYTimes Article
  10. ^ Muddy Waters: Rollin' Stone
  11. ^ Rollin' Stone lyrics