Rolling Stone? good or bad



I was being lazy this morning and relaxing with coffee with Desert Island Discs, where Kirsty’s guest was a very interesting gentleman, microbiologist Professor Peter Piot. One of his choices was Bob Dylan’s Like Rolling Stone. Now I am a huge fan of Dylan always have been and suspect after all these decades always will be:) so another reason to enjoy my coffee. Anyway, it got me thinking of the meaning of A rolling stone gathers no moss, decided I would look it up and see what the books have to say.

I have known this proverb since I was a mere stripling nearly 7 decades ago. My grandmothers in particular were very fond of quoting it as short hand for those wastrel and ne’do wells, who impinged on their ordered lives.

A rolling stone gathers no moss is quite an interesting example of the changes in meanings and cultural norms.

It is a very old proverb dating back at least the first century BC Latin and Greek writers were well aware of the differences between those who settled and those who wandered, I suspect it was in use way before.

The surface meaning is that moss is a slow growing organism which thrives with little or no interference. Grows in the quiet places, gets on with being moss.

Move this to people we have those who settle, who develop complex cultures, acquire possessions, riches maybe, they work hard at one thing, develop carers, families. Life becomes more predictable and ordered. All admirable qualities:)

If you disturb moss, say by rolling stones and pebbles around, up and down dale, rolling, moving, churning all the time, moss will not grow. People who constantly move around tend to gather few possessions, work, at not, at various occupations, are loners, no time for children (who thrive best on order) do not belong to the complex life of stability. Or at least that was the thought when I was the child.

Erasmus in 1508 used it in that meaning, also John Heyward in his Collection of Proverbs 1546.

In the 17th century in a French/ English dictionary when defining the French word Rodeur we read

Rodeur: Vagabond, roamer, wanderer, street walker, highway beater, a rolling stone. One that does naught but runne here and there, trot up and downe, rougue all the country over.

My grannies born in the 1800s were certainly worried, when I told them I wanted to travel the world, that I would turn out bad – a rolling stone.

Somewhere around my coming of age the meaning was changing, probably had been for many decades, changes take time. I was a child of the 50s and 60s. I was listening to to the Blues. to Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan, indeed of the Rolling Stone s themselves.

I knew that being a rolling stone equaled freedom from the stagnation I sensed around me.
Did I want – a career? nope
A family?  nope (women were still meant to be married by their early twenties.
I did like possession s but the postal service was pretty good,
I had always been a bit of a loner so that was a positive.
In fact wandering up and down dale meant I met so many folk and made more friends than ever I would have done at home

I have in my possession, belonging to my father, a Common English Proverb by A. Johnson published in 1958 which says

A person who frequently changes his occupation does not become rich; just as a stone that never stays long in one place gives no chance for moss to grow on it.

This was published just after the end of a five year war of great disruptive horror and a time when success was being given a job for life. This then was the version my parents followed, they didn’t worry about me wandering for a while but, made sure I had a training before I left so that I could follow the right way when my walking boots wore thin.

My latest is a Dictionary of Proverbs and Their Origins by Linda and Roger Flavell reprinted in 2006. I read it now when the increasing norm seems to be short term contracts in employment. When to keep in employment one needs to be willing to move, to be mobile in training and retraining. And I find a new interpretation of this proverb has arisen

Moss = stagnation,slowness in adapting, embracing new thought or advancing knowledge and in contrast a rolling stone

Mobility = keeps the mind sharp, innovative, imagination will run to advancement and innovation

A rolling stone now for many people people means one can achieve success and reward from rolling.

Two completely different interpretations running side by side and only time will tell which will win out. Interesting time ahead for this old adage.

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