Word Connections: Rock & Stone

R. Philip Bouchard
Dec 28, 2016 · 9 min read

In this episode of Word Connections, we examine the words “rock” and “stone”, along with a great number of other words whose meanings or origins relate to rocks.

The words “rock” and “stone” have nearly identical meanings, and are largely interchangeable — although in certain contexts we may tend to favor one word over the other. Both words can serve as either a countable noun or a mass noun. For example, I can say that there are 17 stones sitting on the countertop, or that the countertop is made of stone. I can say that a cliff face is solid rock, or that there are hundreds of giant rocks at the foot of the cliff.

In most cases, you can substitute “rock” for “stone” or vice versa, and your meaning will be understood. For example, you could say “I picked up a rock” or “I picked up a stone”, and you’ll be understood either way. However, because of our subtle preferences, certain substitutions may sound a little bit peculiar. These preferences are most obvious in three circumstances:

1) When we use the word as a mass noun — referring to a substance rather than countable objects — we usually prefer “rock” if the material is still in its original location in the earth, and we prefer “stone” if the material has been removed from its original location. Therefore you may drill a highway tunnel through rock, but your countertop is made of stone.

2) As a countable noun, we often think of “rocks” as having rough angular surfaces, and “stones” as having a smooth surface — rounded naturally by water action or artificially by human effort. This is certainly not a hard rule, but it is a general preference among many people.

3) Size also plays a role in our preference between the two words. For a very large object, we usually prefer the word “rock”. But for a very small object, many people prefer the word “stone”.

English is full of synonyms like this. For many such pairs, one of the words came from Anglo-Saxon, and the other word came from French. This is a product of the Norman Invasion of 1066, which was followed by a period of several centuries in which the ruling class of England spoke a dialect of Old French, while the lower classes continued to speak Anglo-Saxon, also called Old English. Several centuries passed during which both languages coexisted — and each took on many attributes of the other. During this time English absorbed around 10,000 French words, and parts of the grammar changed to be more like French. Eventually English replaced French as the principal language of the upper class. The revived form of the language is now known as Middle English — the language of Chaucer — and it is quite different from Old English. A key feature of Middle English is the presence of so many French words.

Therefore, when we examine words that have been a part of the English language for a very long time — for 800 years or more — we find a split between the words that came to us from Old English, and the words that came to us from Old French. This phenomenon is particularly intriguing when it applies to synonyms. For example, “pretty” came from Old English, while “beautiful” derives from Old French. The word “old” came from Old English, while “ancient” came from Old French. And “shy” originated in Old English, while “bashful” is derived from Old French.

In the case of “rock” and “stone”, it appears that we have a similar situation — but there is a tiny bit of doubt. It is clear that “stone” came from Old English, and it is clear that the Normans brought a version of the word “rock” with them. However, there is some evidence that the word “rock” may have been present in Old English prior to the Norman Invasion.

The word “stone” comes from the Old English word stān, which is related to the Dutch word steen and the German word Stein. This connection is not surprising, because Old English was a Germanic language that had a shared origin with Dutch and German. The Scandinavian languages also have similar words for stone, such as sten in Swedish, stein in Norwegian, and steinn in Icelandic. Today we often encounter the word “Stein” as a surname, or as part of a surname. For example, the surname Einstein literally means “one stone”. We also encounter the word “stein” in English to mean a mug for beer. Such a mug is typically made of either earthenware or glass, and both materials are types of ceramics — a category of materials that is essentially manmade stone. The original German word for beer mug was Steinkrug, literally meaning “stone jug”, but the word eventually became shortened to Stein.

In Old French, the word for rock was roque, which in turn came from the Latin word rocca. We see evidence of the Old French word when we mention Roquefort cheese — a type of blue cheese that comes from the region surrounding the town of Roquefort, in France. The name of the town literally means “strong rock”. The town is situated in a picturesque location, with tall cliffs of white rock rising up directly behind the town. The cheese is aged in caves that are carved into the rock. Confusingly, there are nearly a dozen towns in France with the name of Roquefort. The town famous for its blue cheese is more formally known as Roquefort-sur-Soulzon, in the department of Aveyron. In the local dialect of Occitan, the town is called Ròcafòrt, which is quite close to the original Latin.

In modern French, the word for rock has evolved from roque into roche. Other Latin languages include similar words, such as roca in Spanish, rocha in Portuguese, and roccia in Italian. Intriguingly, it seems that most European languages have at least two words that mean rock or stone. Even Latin had multiple words for rock, and one of those words was petra. Descendants of both words — rocca and petra — survived in all of the Romance languages. Therefore in Italian there is pietra, in Spanish there is piedra, and in French there is pierre.

In English, when we hear “Pierre”, we usually think of the French name, which means Peter. But in fact, the name Peter also means “rock”, because the name Peter comes directly from the Latin word petra. In French, the fact that the name Pierre means rock is much more obvious. There is a wonderful pun in the book of Matthew, in the New Testament, where Jesus gives his disciple Simon a new name: “I say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church.” In English the pun is hidden, but in French the pun is obvious, because the same word is used for “Peter” and for “rock”: “Je te disque, Tu es Pierre; et sur cette pierre je batirai.” In Spanish — where Peter is Pedro and “rock” is piedra — the pun is still apparent but slightly obscured. However, the book of Matthew was not originally written in French, or even in Latin — it was written in Aramaic, a language related to Hebrew. The pun is indeed present in the original text, where Jesus gives Simon the name “Kephas”, which in Aramaic means “rock”.

The upshot is that the names Peter, Pierre, Pedro, and Petra all mean “rock”. Less obviously, the name “Craig” also means rock. The Celtic languages of the British Isles (such as Irish, Scotch Gaelic, and Welch), all share a similar word for rock — creig, creag, and craig. In English we adopted the word “crag” from the same Celtic origin to mean a large, prominent outcropping of rock.

In addition to the name Peter, English includes several other words that are also derived from the Latin word petra. There is “petroleum”, which literally means “rock oil” or “oil from rocks” — an accurate description. There is “petroglyph”, which literally means “carving or writing on rocks” — again an accurate description. And of course the word “petrify” means to turn into stone. By the way, the word petra did not actually originate with Latin — it came into Latin from Greek. Even today, the Greek word for rock is petra (“πέτρα”). Or more accurately, one of the Greek words for rock is petra; like so many other European languages, Greek has multiple words for rock!

Another Greek word for rock or stone is lithos. In English we have quite a few words — especially scientific terms — that are derived from lithos, including “lithium”, “lithography”, “lithosphere”, and “regolith”. For some of these words, the connection to “stone” is fairly obvious, and in other cases it is less obvious. For example, lithography is a form of printing which originally employed a large, flat stone on which an image was prepared, which could then be transferred to a sheet of paper or other suitable material. These days a large flat, metal plate might be used in place of the stone.

In addition to rocca and petra, another Latin word for stone is lapis. From this we get the English word “lapidary”, which refers to the process of cutting, polishing, or engraving stones — especially gem stones. “Lapis” also appears in the name of a semiprecious blue stone called “lapis lazuli” — a peculiar case in which we continue to use a Medieval Latin phrase as the name of the stone. The word “lazuli” came into Latin from the Arabic word lāzuward, which in turn came from the Persian lājward. The Spanish word azul, which means “blue”, likewise came from the same Arabic word. The English word “azure” has a related history, tracing back to the Persian word, from which it passed into Arabic and then Old French before entering English.

In English, we sometimes use the word “pebble” to refer to a small, naturally rounded stone. This word traces back to the Old English word papel-stān , literally “pebble-stone”. In Latin, the word for pebble was calculus — a word which in English now refers to a branch of mathematics. This astounding transformation arose from the ancient practice of using pebbles for counting. In English the word “calculate” evolved from counting into more complex forms of arithmetic, and finally into any kind of mathematical computation. When we use the word “calculator”, we seldom think of pebbles. However, in medicine, a kidney stone or a gallstone is still called a “calculus” — an actual pebble!

Another English word that is related to rocks is “lava”. When melted rock pours from a volcano, we call it “lava” — a word which came from Italian. On the European continent (excluding associated islands), Italy is the only country where flowing lava is likely to present a danger to towns and people. Therefore it makes sense that Italians invented the word for it, and that most of the other western European languages have simply borrowed the same word. (Iceland, which has its own lava flows, also has its own word — hraun.) The Italian word lava came from the Latin word lavāre, which means “to wash”. You can think of a lava flow as “washing over” an area of land, scrubbing it clean of everything that was there before. Therefore the English word “lava” comes from the same Latin origin as “lavatory”, a place where you can go to wash your hands.

One of the best-known and most easily recognized types of rock is granite. The word “granite”, like the word “lava”, came into English from Italian. In Italian the word is granito, which means “grained” or “grainy”. If you are familiar with granite, then you know that it consists of distinct crystals of black and white, or sometime black, white, and pink. These crystals — which are primarily quartz, feldspar, and mica — give the stone a distinct, grainy look; hence the name. The Italian word granito traces back to the Latin word grānum, which means “grain”. Our word “grain” comes from the same origin, by way of Old French. Originally the word meant any very small thing, so we refer to a “grain of salt”, a “grain of sand”, or a “tiny grain of truth”. Our cereal crops — such as wheat, corn, barley, oats, rye, sorghum, and rice — all consist of tiny grains, and therefore we have come to associate the word “grain” with these crops. In English, a very small grain of something is sometimes called a “granule” — another word derived from granum. If we convert something into small grains, then we “granulate” it — as in granulated sugar. This contrasts with a solid brick of sugar — a familiar grocery item in Latin America, but not well known in the United States.

In English we also use the words “rock” and “stone” as verbs — but here the meanings diverge completely. I might rock you to sleep, or stone you to death, but there is no substituting one word for the other. We have also developed a generous supply of idioms in English that use these two words — but again no substitutions are allowed. You might get stoned while listening to rock music, but you won’t get rocked while listening to stone music. And on that high note, we now conclude our journey through the many words that are related to rock and stone!

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The Philipendium

Insightful stories about science, nature, language, and education. Browse a collection of more than 50 fascinating articles.

R. Philip Bouchard

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Writer, educator, and avid student of nature. See more at www.philipbouchard.com

The Philipendium

Insightful stories about science, nature, language, and education. Browse a collection of more than 50 fascinating articles.

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