A rolling stone gathers no moss  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

A rolling stone gathers no moss is an old proverb, credited to Publilius Syrus ("lapis qui volvitur algam non generat"), 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

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.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.


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. It is also given as "Musco lapis volutus haud obducitur," and in some cases as "Musco lapis volutus haud obvolvitur".

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.

In Psychiatry

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 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. For example, a 'concrete' interpretation of the proverb would be: "If you roll a stone down a hill, it won't pick up any moss." This kind of answer is considered a failure to abstract and fails the psychological test. An example of an abstract interpretation is when substitution of metaphors occurs: A "rolling stone" is interpreted as an unsettled person or a busy person and "moss" is interpreted something to be avoided or, conversely, something to be desired. The important feature of the test is the discernment and substitution of metaphors rather than a particularly 'correct' answer.

Occasionally, critics of using proverbs this way point out that:

  • 'sane' persons who have never heard the proverb will interpret the proverb 'concretely'
  • persons with poor education, or with even slightly below-average intelligence, usually handle proverbs concretely, in the absence of mental illness
  • poor abstraction is not specific to schizophrenia and also occurs in depression, anxiety, and organic impairment due to systemic illness or dementia

This method was used in the film, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, in order to interrogate McMurphy and to test his mental state. His first response was, "It's the same as 'Don't wash your dirty underwear in public'", which confused the doctors, then he said, "It's hard for something to grow on something that's moving."

The method is also mentioned in Philip Dick's novel We Can Build You, where the main character, Louis, fails to recognize the meaning of the proverb, and is thus diagnosed with 'Magna Mater' schizophrenia.

Literary allusions to the contrary, proverb interpretation is a very small part of a psychiatric evaluation, and in practice no one would be diagnosed as schizophrenic for failure to abstract proverbs, in the absence of other clear symptoms such as loose associations, delusions, or hallucinations.

Cultural references

In Literature

  • 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 Music

  • 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.”
  • 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" His 1955 recording "Mannish Boy" includes the phrase "I'm a rollin' stone".
  • Hank Williams's 1952 hit "Lost Highway" (originally by Leon Payne) 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."
  • 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."
  • 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".

In Television

  • In the SpongeBob SquarePants episode "The Algae's Always Greener," Sheldon J. Plankton states that "A rolling stone gathers no algae."
  • Mythbusters made an experiment to check if a rolling stone would gather moss or not in the episode "Breaking Glass".
  • In an episode of NCIS: LA, Sam Hanna & G. Callen argue over the meaning of the proverb.

Other media references

  • 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."

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "A rolling stone gathers no moss" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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