Discussions about eggcorns and related topics
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Chris -- 2011-03-08
When whole phrases are understood in different ways by different speech communities, we have (if there is such a beast) an expanded hidden eggcorn.
One of these dual-interpretation phrases is “a rolling stone gathers no moss.” When it became a proverb in English, probably in the sixteenth century, the saying conveyed a negative moral. A person shifting about from place to place didn’t form essential durable associations. “Moss” was mapped, in the analogy, onto the positive qualities that the wandered did not acquire. “Rolling stone” was extracted from the idiom to refer to a wastrel, a rogue (and later, as we know, adapted as the name of a countercultural rock group and magazine).
The North American glorification of the continental immigrant seeking new lands switched the import of the idiom, leading to a positive moral. “Moss” became mapped onto stasis, stagnation, and dullness. An expansionist culture started to see some value in rolling stones.
When the English-speaking Douglas Hofstadter and the French-speaking Emmanuel Sander co-authored simultaneous French and English versions of a new book (published as Surfaces and Essences:Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking and L’analogie : Coeur de la pensée ), they noted the difference between the French and English interpretations of “A rolling stone gathers no moss”/”Pierre qui roule n’amasse pas mousse.” French culture, lacking the wilderness experience, encamped on the older, negative interpretation that English was turning away from.
You can see the French understanding . The author of the site says “Ce proverbe incite donc les gens à rester casaniers pour avoir des chances … de remplir leur portefeuille. [“This proverb thus encourages people to remain homebodies in order to have a chance … to expand their portfolios.”] A modern English language understanding of the phrase in certain English lects , which equates it with the sentence “A person who does not keep active will grow mouldy.” 1
1 Mycologists should be miffed. Mosses, it seems, can be excused from the roster of encumbrances, fungi cannot.