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What Does "A Rolling Stone Gathers no Moss" Mean?

An idiom is a turn of phrase that usually doesn't make sense when literally translated.
Moss on stones around a waterfall.
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  • Written By: A. Leverkuhn
  • Edited By: Andrew Jones
  • Last Modified Date: 26 March 2014
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The phrase “a rolling stone gathers no moss” has had two opposite meanings during its centuries of use in the English language. The first, and traditional, use indicates that it is desirable or profitable to stay in one place, while the more modern meaning suggests that success depends on action and a kind of metaphorical, if not a physical, transience. This long idiomatic phrase is an example of a “platitude,” or simple illustration, of a value judgment. This specific idiom also has the distinction of having had its meaning reversed according to general societal changes.

Many attribute the origin of the phrase to ancient philosophers, such as Erasmus or another writer named Publius Syrus. In its original meaning, the phrase implied that the “moss” is good and beneficial, and that an individual should stay rooted or grounded in one place in order to prosper. By contrast, those who did not follow this platitude earned derogatory titles such as the common “wastrel” and later, “gadabout.”

As English speaking society evolved, particularly with the rise of America, the meaning of “a rolling stone gathers no moss” began to change dramatically. It became associated with the opposite idea that success depends, not on stasis, but on ambition and proactive efforts. This led to the more common use of the phrase as it stands today, as a suggestion that, in fact, travel and change are good for an individual or enterprise.

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Part of the new appeal of movement and transience in the modern era can be seen in two of the most prominent uses of the shorter phrase “rolling stone.” The first is the prominent modern rock band, The Rolling Stones, which achieved worldwide fandom late in the twentieth century. The second is the use of the name by the high profile music and culture magazine, Rolling Stone, which has produced top reporting, not just in music, but in current events and American politics.

In both of the uses of the phrase “a rolling stone gathers no moss,” the metaphor remains the same. The stone represents the passage of an individual or group through both time and space. Many of those who use it in a modern context may not understand its former traditional use, but the direct metaphorical meaning is still evident.

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