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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.”

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.

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.