I do have a likin’ for this word. It’s so soft and moist and comfortable, the lips coming together like stacked pillows on the /m/ and then the /s/ at the end refreshes with the coolness of the other side of the pillow. The shape of the word is even and compact, like a little piece of what it refers to. And of course my taste for this word is strongly influenced by what it refers to, that simple plant that forms a sort of green fur coat on rocks and dirt and trees and so forth. I love lush green places, and nothing is as lush and green as moss, especially when you have masses of moist moss, perhaps in the mist in the morning…
Another reason to think of moss as pretty is of course Kate Moss. Actually, she’s a friend of mine. No, not the famous Kate Moss, though she’s pretty too. This Kate Moss is the wife of another friend of mine, a fellow I’ve known for years and met in choir.
And choir is the reason I was thinking of this word tonight. You see, in musical scores you will sometimes see più mosso or meno mosso. I’d like to think that it means “more moss” and “less moss”, but there’s nothing soft, moist, furry, dense, or heavy about what mosso means in music. In fact, it refers not to the moss but to the rolling stone that gathers none; mosso is the past participle of muovere “move” and, in music, means “animated”, “rhythmic”, etc. So più mosso is quite the opposite of peat moss, but meno mosso might mean a bit more moss on the rock (or the classical, as the case more likely is). (The word moss is not related to mosso; it’s an old Germanic word.)
About that proverb, by the way. Today when we say “A rolling stone gathers no moss,” we probably think (aside from the inevitable popular music references from rolling stone) that it means that you won’t get old and mouldy and tied down with unnecessary commitments if you keep in motion – that it’s good to be like a rolling stone. But it was not always thus. “A rolling stone gathers no moss” originally meant that if you never settle down, you never accumulate friends, wealth, etc. Think back even to Bob Dylan: his song is about a person who is “without a home, a complete unknown, like a rolling stone” – the subject of the song is not in a happy state; he’s scrounging for his next meal.
So moss was seen as a good thing. And I think it still is a good thing. It’s not just a soft, likable, lush green thing that grows all over whatever; among the 12,000 species of moss out there are many of the sphagnum sort (ah, sphagnum – there’s another word worth a taste, a word of deep mists or perhaps sounding like a depth charge), which are associated with some rather good things. Sphagnum moss is what peat is made of, and peat makes a decent fuel for fire – especially if the fire is smoking the malt for Scotch. It’s also what keeps those various prehistoric bog men preserved so we can see them in museums. Sphagnum moss, you see, is absorbent and has antibacterial properties, which means it’s also usable as a dressing for wounds. And, incidentally, as a substitute for diapers.
No, seriously. Various North American aboriginal peoples have carried infants in moss bags – the bag is made of leather, and the moss inside it does quite nicely for absorbing baby’s mess, and it’s easily changed (as long as you have more moss available). I don’t know how common this still is, but I know about this because for many years my parents worked for and lived among the Nakoda (Stoney) Indians, and they (my parents) carried their infant second son – me – in a moss bag. It’s not that I remember now what it was like in that bag, but I’m sure I’ve liked moss longer than I’ve liked almost anything.