Week of October 11, 2020

For Those About to Rock…


You might like a drink on the rocks if your relationship is on the rocks. In the first idiom, rocks just mean ice. The latter originally refers to a ship in dire trouble because it has run into rocks which are breaking it apart, a particular danger when most ships were made of wood.


Something essential is often called a “cornerstone” because the stone in the corner of a building, where two walls begin from, was traditionally a first and foundational part of the structure. Since they are often laid in a ceremony to mark the start of construction, cornerstones frequently have dates or other inscriptions on them, and some are hollow and filled with items like a time capsule.


The first person to think that they just passed a major milestone was likely traveling the Appian Way near Rome about 2,300 years ago. This remarkable road – still usable today – was the first to use stones as inscribed distance markers. Modern travelers may navigate with GPS rather than stones, but the term “milestone” remains for markers on this road that is life.


That popular language-learning app is named Rosetta Stone for a reason. Found by Napoleon’s forces in 1799 near Rosetta, Egypt, the Rosetta Stone became the key to deciphering the ancient and disused language of hieroglyphics, since the stone contained identical passages in Greek, Egyptian demotic, and Egyptian hieroglyphics.


We all know that “a rolling stone gathers no moss,” and hence the name of that famous band and magazine. Curiously, however, moss is a metaphor for stability, relationships, and wealth in this old proverb, and since slow-growing mosses and lichens rarely thrive on moving surfaces, by the early 17th Century, a “rolling stone” referred to an unstable and unproductive wanderer.


References to “rocking and rolling” had been around since the 17th Century to describe the motion of a boat on the ocean, with “rocking” being the forward and back motion and “rolling” the side to side motion, and were often a reference to sex as well. As to music, however, a comic song called “Rock and Roll Me” was performed in 1886 in Australia, and various songs referring to either rocking, rolling, or both appeared in the following years, until The Boswell Sisters recorded a hit song just called “Rock and Roll” in 1934. The term continued to appear in music, and in the early 1950s, Cleveland disc jockey Alan Freed started to apply the name “rock and roll” to the music he was playing, and the name stuck.


The Rock of Gibraltar, longtime symbol of strength and stability, is not only modern logo of the Prudential Insurance Company, but also was one of the markers, according to ancient legend, of the limits of the known world (or at least of navigation).