Rock or Stone: Is there a difference?

Stone or Rock? Is there a difference? Working on my new book has forced me to consider this question and its implications. Throughout the book, I use the terms interchangeably, based mostly on how they sound or how frequently I used one or the other.

When I did a bit of searching on the web, I found that some people thought that stone was more British; that rock could be hard and soft, whereas stone was always hard; that stones are smooth and rocks rough; and that stones are small and rocks are big. In his wonderful book, Stone by Stone, Robert Thorson writes “Rock is raw material in situ. Stone usually connotes either human handling or human use, although it can also be used to describe naturally produced fragments of rock larger than a cobble.”

Seeking a more erudite source, I turned to one of my favorite books, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), to get the fine opinion of its worthy editors. The first definition for rock is “A large rugged mass of hard mineral material or stone.” Its first use comes from Old English, dated at 950-1100. The OED defines stone as “A piece of rock or hard mineral substance of a small or moderate size,” first used in 825. Now, I see the difference!

Curiously, the word stonerock, defined as “A pointed or projecting rock, a peak, a crag; a detached mass of rock, a boulder or large stone,” predates either of the singular words stone or rock. Stonerock, or stanrocces, as it was spelled, dates from the Early Old English, used from 600 to 950. I am not sure that this clarifies my quest but as is the norm for the OED, I got sucked into the many definitions and uses, which run to three pages for rock, including rock nosing, rockchuck, and rock-embosomed; and four and a half for stone, with such nifty combinations as stone harmonicon, stone-pock, and stone-toter.

Perhaps I could find a bit of clarity from on high. In the King James Bible, stone and rock seemed interchangeable, such as in Genesis 31:46, where we read of Jacob telling his brethren to “Gather stones; and they took stones, and made an heap.” (Now why they didn’t just say cairn here is beyond me!) But there are two situations where stone and rock cannot be substituted for one another. The first is the surprisingly common pastime (at least a dozen times) where somebody must “stone them/him/her with stones.” You can “stone them with rocks” but no matter how tin your ear is you cannot “rock them with rocks,” which allows for the introduction of this silly phrase: you can, at least since the 1960s, “rock them with The Stones.”

More common than death by stone is the affirmation of a Holy Being as the “rock of one’s salvation.” This sense highlights a central difference between the words. People often use rock to refer to something solid, large, grounded, substantial, something to base your faith upon, such as a mountain or palisade. No one would say the “stone of one’s salvation.” Stone, while connoting a hard mineral substance, favors smaller objects, such as something you can pick up in your hands, for example, the stones for the heap gathered by Jacob’s pals.

Seeking out an even higher authority I turned to Shakespeare. He also incorporated stone and rock into his writings, more than 115 times and 50 times, respectively (which includes the plural forms.) One of his most famous uses comes from As You Like It, in the banished Duke’s ode to a new forested life “And this our life exempt from public haunt/Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,/Sermons in stones and good in every thing.” Clearly the Bard chose stone for the alliteration and sound, as he did in Titus Andronicus, where the title character states “A stone is soft as wax,—tribunes more hard than stones; A stone is silent, and offendeth not.” (One of my favorite poets, Robinson Jeffers, refers to the “insolent quietness of stone.”)

Shakespeare’s use of rock was often specific to the sea, as something to fear. “Rocks threaten us with wreck.” “And then there is the peril of waters, winds and rocks.” “Alas, the sea hath cast me on the rocks.” No one, especially one with Shakespeare’s gifts, would substitute stone in these situations. Again, his use of rock reflects the idea that rock refers to massive, immovable matter, though this idea does not limit rock to this definition.

I cannot end my consideration of these two terms without turning to one final source of inspiration, that of big time wrestling, or “rassling,” as one former National Park superintendent called it. I refer to the two icons of that theater, The Rock and Stone Cold Steve Austin. Surely these two men illustrate the differences between the two words.

Ultimately, I have concluded that there is some difference between the terms. I agree with Thorson that stone more often implies some sort of human use. Stone also does seem restricted to smaller material. But rock can also be used in these situations. In this sense all rocks are stones but not all stones are rocks. Clear as mud.

 

14 comments to Rock or Stone: Is there a difference?

  • Callan Bentley

    My working definition is: “Stone is rock that you pay money for.”

  • John T. Collier

    David – Per your advice, during my recent talk “Urban Paleontology – Fossil Hunting for Lazy People” I used “stone” for “rocks that are used by humans”. I love your use of “The Rock” and “Stone Cold Steve Austin” to provide us with another, authoritative, meaning. :)

  • Ezra

    I never remember; were the Rolling Stones a rock band? Or were the Rolling Rocks a stone band?

  • robert

    in the UK we refer to rock as the raw material and stones are small(er) pieces of rock as you described earlier. For example, a tennis ball sized piece of rock would be a stone (not a rock as in the US).

  • Grays

    Don’t you mean that all stones are rocks, but not all rocks are stones?

  • Phillip I. Wink

    I have never been stoned in any respect but have been rocked by a few stones. I however feel as a pebble under the rocker of life at times when my frequency to rock is stoped stone cold. Do all rocks and stones have harmonics and frequency to each it’s own? Are we calling a family of sorts to life? Sister pebbles, brother rocky, cusin stoney, great granny gravel, and lets not forget papaw bolder, aunt pearl and uncle gem as we look to the writing in stone! If only we were not so rocky before our head of stone!

  • Dave Cressman

    To me: Stone is something you can pick up with one hand (for throwing). A rock takes two hands.

  • Ruffina Petros

    If you think of a stone as a smooth, can hold in your palm, rock , I suppose so. People use tumblers to mechanically do it. Why not nature?

  • [...] rock. Yes. Or a stone. Well whatever you like to call it, though there IS a difference between them, there aren’t multiple words in a English for nothing you know. Or Geology in this case. [...]

  • CJ

    Rocks are volcanic and stones are sediment . . . I think ?

  • Thomas John

    I think Rocks are raw. Rough. Covered with mud. Soft because of the muddy layer.
    And stones are smooth. Without the mud layer. (The muddy layer can be removed by men, or wind, or water.). And it’s Hard.

    So, I guess stones that are covered with mud, in nature, are rocks.
    So all rocks are stones.
    And rocks when cleared of the mud, by us or nature, becomes stone.

  • Cj2

    Sorry CJ. Volcanic rocks, sedimentary rocks , all rocks. Stone is even different to Stones

  • T.W. Griffin

    I can pick up a rock as easily as I can a stone, and with one hand. I regard the difference as one of semantics rather than taxonomy unless we speak in the purely geological sense. In that case, perhaps this (my own, admittedly, but I have struggled with this for many years also): shale is a type of rock, whereas stone would fit more into the category of a monolithic structure, such as a stone (in the form of a formation, outcrop, et al?) consisting of shale plus limestone – or more. Does this work for anyone?

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