Linguistic myths – how do they survive?

This really is an “oldie but a goody”. I am talking about a classic dictionary error (in my opinion) that still turns up on translation forums, let alone in dictionaries – even very well known online ones (I checked today before writing this).

A rolling stone gathers no moss.

Wer rastet, der rostet.

Well, I suppose they look as if they should be similar – you keep on the move, you don’t have a lot of extraneous ballast (English), you keep still, you “rust” or become inactive. It isn’t unknown for two languages to say the same thing by opposites, one country’s health insurance is another’s sickness insurance.

However:

A rolling stone gathers no moss: most definitions and explanations say it means people who keep moving on do not collect responsibilities and ties, or even many possessions – often, though by no means always, it is construed as negative, i.e. it is presumably a mature thing to gather responsibilities as you grow committed to a place.

Wer rastet, der rostet: generally defined as meaning that if you “rest” too much, i.e. don’t move physically and/or mentally, you will seize up (literally: rust) and be unable to run, skip, hop or use your brain.

Interestingly, one or two of the English definitions do take the German meaning, specifically in the sense of keeping mentally alert. However, generally speaking, anyone who knows German and English well must know that the ideas conveyed in the two phrases are not equivalent, so how do the dictionary entries survive? The two phrases “fit where they touch”, like loose clothing – and they don’t seem to touch in many places.

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