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Meaning of the Proverb 'Rolling Stone Gathers No Moss'

Neha B Deshpande Feb 10, 2019
A person constantly seeking change, constantly switch jobs, locations, teams, thoughts, etc., is said to be like a rolling stone that gathers no moss. But what does this proverb exactly mean? Here we give you the interpretation and implied meaning of this proverb.

Unclear Origins

Although exact records are unclear, it is believed that this proverb was known to Ancient Greeks and Romans. Some sources attribute this proverb to Latin writer Publilius Syrus, a Roman slave. Though confirmed records of its usage have been known only since the early 1500s.
Ancient proverbs form a rich part of our literature. They are used as a metaphor, and are not meant to convey the literal meaning. One such proverb is 'rolling stone gathers no moss'. The origins of this proverb, as mentioned earlier, are unclear.
Some records attribute it to 14th century Dutch theologian Erasmus. Whatever its origins may be, this proverb has inspired a few interpretations and tales. It has also become a term for someone who is a wanderer or drifter who is of no good. Not to mention its influence on music, it has been translated into various languages―from Norwegian to Persian.
So considering its importance in colloquial language, we decided to do our bit by trying to understand the meaning of the proverb, which we have presented here.

Interpretation #1

Moss thrives on stones and rocks, and requires the stone to remain stationary in order to grow. Thus, if the rock does not move, it is easier for the moss to grow on it. A rolling stone does not stay at one place. This is used to represent a person who is a nomad, i.e., one who does not stay at one place, and keeps wandering.
For such a person, it is very difficult to accumulate wealth and status. He also usually shuns his responsibilities and does not commit to any particular society. He keeps moving to avoid responsibility and does not have sense of belonging towards any particular place or people.
He cannot be relied upon, since you cannot predict what his next action might be. He is a wanderer, and can easily be distracted. Thus, the rolling stone does not collect any moss in this case. It is difficult for him to develop bonds with people of one place.

Interpretation #2

The second interpretation is slightly more positive. A traveler and wanderer collects more ideas, and learns from new surroundings and cultures. Like they say, 'change is the only constant in life'. When you meet new people, you learn to adapt to different situations, learn new perspectives, and throw away your rigidity.
People who tend to stay at one place think highly of it, and usually consider other places unfit for staying. They cannot easily adapt, and usually are not receptive towards changes. Such people understand only their way of thinking and easily become prejudiced about others.
Whereas, one who travels a lot is creative and accepts changes easily. Here motion symbolizes progress and change, and hence, is desirable.

Reference in Literature

► 'A Rolling Stone Gathers No Moss', a book by Kristen M. Math, highlights the struggles of one of the darkest periods of the protagonist's life.
► 'Like a Rolling Stone' book by Greil Marcus describes how Bob Dylan's song 'Like a Rolling Stone' created a revolution in the minds of listeners with its thought-provoking lyrics.

► 'The Rolling Stones', a science-fiction novel by Robert A. Heinlein, describes the adventures of twins Castor and Pollux Stone.

Reference in Music

► 'The Rolling Stones' is the name of a rock band whose current members are Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Ronnie Wood, and Charlie Watts.
► 'Like a Rolling Stone', a song by Bob Dylan, describes how a fallen rich woman now feels like a rolling stone―with nowhere to go, and no place to show her riches.

► 'Rolling Stone' is a track by the band 'The Weekend'.

► 'Rolling Stone' is a magazine that was founded by Jann Simon Wenner and music critic Ralph J. Gleason.

A Tale Emphasizing the Proverb

Once upon a time, the animals and birds of the forest had an argument over who should be the king of the forest. Among all animals, the bat cunningly tried to switch sides depending on who won this tiff. Eventually, the animals won, and the bat tried to join them, stating that it is a mammal.
However, the animals refused to accept it, since it flew. Hence, the bat turned to the birds; however, they too refused, stating that it was an animal. Had it supported either group before the argument concluded, it would have been accepted by either group. Alas, the bat stood alone in the end.

The moral is clear: A rolling stone gathers no moss.
While this tale highlights the need to stick to one place, we can combine both interpretations of this proverb, we need both stability and the essence of change in our minds. While stability represents tranquility and peace of mind, an unstable mind will keep moving from one thought to another. It might represent confusion of our thoughts that create chaos.
Stable water is always clear, and it represents that our thoughts have that profoundness. On the other hand, flowing water represents constant effort to adjust to conditions and circumstances that life offers.
Else, it might form a puddle, and we might not think of the world outside it, which will hamper our growth opportunities. Moreover, it is important to implement the moral that we learned from this proverb.