Stepping stones

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From Jerry Clough:

Apropos of nothing in particular I noted that the Wikipedia article on what I call "stepping stones" is called "step-stone bridge".  

I assumed that this was yet another Americanism, but I can't find it in dictionaries here, or any uses of this and related terms using Google ngrams. The useful reference on the Wikipedia article is a glossary of trail terms and only contains "stepping stones".  

I wondered if you, or perhaps Language Log readers, could shed any light on what to me looks suspiciously like a neologism.

I don't recall ever having seen this phrase, and can't find any examples in books or news sources or anywhere else. One clue might be that among the other languages with a corresponding Wikipedia entry, the Icelandic and Dutch versions are morphologically suitable sources for an English calque.

Another clue is that the entry seems originally to have created by a member of a Wikipedia bridges project, who may have felt that a term headed by the word bridge is required by their particular variety of nerdview. But even so, "stepping-stone bridge" would be more idiomatic.



  1. Gregory Kusnick said,

    July 23, 2015 @ 2:19 pm

    The Wikipedia article seems particularly concerned with stepping stones that cross water, and fails to mention other uses of such stones (such as marking out paths in lawns or gardens). So perhaps that explains the use of "bridge" in the title.

    As to why this particular use of stepping stones merits an article of its own, presumably that's a result of the bridges project's mission "[t]o increase the number and quality of articles about bridges".

  2. Lucy Kemnitzer said,

    July 23, 2015 @ 2:23 pm

    Previous to this the only place I ever encountered "stepstone" is in the song "Goodbye to my stepstone," (another version)in which I always thought it was a stone placed in front of a house as a stoop, not a stepping-stone for crossing water or wet land.

    Just now I had a hard time finding the song, because there's a bunch of corporate organizations called that.

  3. Mara K said,

    July 23, 2015 @ 2:40 pm

    To me, "step-stone" sounds like a Britishism, even though I've seen only "stepping stone" in British literature.

  4. J. W. Brewer said,

    July 23, 2015 @ 2:43 pm

    Yeah, my own idiomatic sense of "stepping stones" also covers e.g. , which would seem to be outside the scope of this particular article. But I find the title oddly unidiomatic for another reason, namely that my core or prototypical sense of the semantics of bridgeness involves a continuous span with water flowing (or at least located, if a pond/lake rather than a stream/creek/river) under it. It doesn't have to have any particular degree of clearance above the surface of the water (i.e. it can be so low that even a very modest boat with short passengers can't slide underneath it), but it needs to be above the water rather than in it. Stepping stones by contrast involve a series of "islands" spaced sufficiently close together that you don't need a bridge to get from one to the next and can thus cross the entire body of water bridgelessly.

  5. Terry Hunt said,

    July 23, 2015 @ 3:26 pm

    @ Mara K

    " . . .sounds like a Britishism."

    For what little my anecdata is worth, this Brit in his 6th decade who has lived in various parts of the UK has never heard or read the term before now.

  6. David L said,

    July 23, 2015 @ 3:42 pm

    I agree with JWB. To my mind, stepping stones are closer to the family of dams and weirs rather than bridges.

  7. Francisco said,

    July 23, 2015 @ 4:00 pm

    Stepstone stepping stones abridges.

  8. chainik said,

    July 23, 2015 @ 4:14 pm

    Regardless of origin, there do seem to be at least a few people who refer to them as step-stones / stepstones / step stones. None of these are as common as "stepping stones", but they aren't unheard of either. Mark is right that the truly odd part here is appending "bridge" to the name ("Stepping Stones Bridge" wouldn't be much better) and it easily could be a linguistic innovation on the part of the Wikipedia Bridges Project.

  9. Maurice Buxton said,

    July 23, 2015 @ 4:23 pm

    The only other context I can remember hearing "step stone" is George RR Martin's Westeros stories, in which the "Stepstones" are a chain of islands between the two main continents — which makes me think the usage is more likely to be localised American slang in origin (unless he simply made it up, of course).

    I can't recall any term other than "stepping stones" in the UK.

  10. Gregory Kusnick said,

    July 23, 2015 @ 5:07 pm

    Maurice: On the other hand, Westeros seems loosely modeled on medieval Britain, which suggests that Martin thinks of "stepstones" as a (pseudo?) Britishism.

  11. AntC said,

    July 23, 2015 @ 5:14 pm

    @Mara K … sounds like a Britishism
    I agree with @Terry (I'm also BrE in my 6th decade). Never heard "step-stone"; I've heard "stepping-stone" aplenty.

    @Mara what makes you think it's a Britishism? To me, myl's diagnosis makes sense: it's a non-nativism or literal translation.

  12. Gene Callahan said,

    July 23, 2015 @ 5:40 pm

    I have only heard "stepping stones" here in the US, and I agree they are not a type of bridge.

  13. Maurice Buxton said,

    July 23, 2015 @ 5:45 pm

    Gregory: Yes, possibly, or perhaps one of the terms given a slight twist in those stories with the apparent intention of making them sound more medieval?

  14. Michael Grutchfield said,

    July 23, 2015 @ 5:46 pm

    For what it's worth, although the song "I'm Not Your Stepping Stone" was covered by Britishers the Sex Pistols, it originated with yankees Boyce & Hart and was originally recorded by American patriots Paul Revere and His Raiders.
    Having lived in the USA my whole life, both East and West Coast, I've never heard of a 'stepstone," "stepstone bridge" or any other variant besides "stepping stones."
    Could it be that Wikipedia (horror or horrors) has something wrong?

  15. Bas J said,

    July 23, 2015 @ 5:58 pm

    The Dutch Wikipedia entry reads like a translation, so I doubt it's a calque from Dutch. In the English entry, in the box to the right, it says "Related: Natural Stepping Stone stream crossing", so I guess they used "bridge" to stress the type of crossing they're discussing is man-made.

  16. Coby Lubliner said,

    July 23, 2015 @ 6:25 pm

    What if it was a Brit who thought that "step stone" is the American term, by analogy with "finish line" (BrE finishing line) etc.?

  17. maidhc said,

    July 23, 2015 @ 7:59 pm

    Step stones are available from Home Depot, but they look like they are for garden use. Lowe's seems to call them stepping stones though.

    Plenty of examples by doing a Google image search on "step stone walkway":

    To me a stepping stone is what you would find in a creek, not in a garden.

  18. Neil Dolinger said,

    July 23, 2015 @ 8:18 pm

    Gratuitous pop culture reference:

  19. Victor Mair said,

    July 23, 2015 @ 8:44 pm

    Looks like this post has started the process of changing the title on Wikipedia:

  20. January First-of-May said,

    July 23, 2015 @ 10:42 pm

    @J.W.Brewer, David L:
    I personally don't think that bridges have to have any clearance above water surface at all (a pontoon bridge might float directly on the water), but stepping stones would be a bridge only in the most metaphorical sense, as a path connecting the two sides.
    It's more like a ford that is so shallow the depth is less than zero (if that makes any sense).

  21. AntC said,

    July 23, 2015 @ 10:53 pm

    @maidhc that's an image search, not a word search. Google "stepping stone walkway" brings up much the same images.

    Googling the web for "step stone walkway" actually brings up "stepping stone walkway" for all entries on the first few pages (until I got bored looking).

    I conjecture that google's algorithm strips off word endings (on both the input phrase and the target phrase).

  22. Victor Mair said,

    July 23, 2015 @ 11:08 pm

    Look at this Ngram

    G says “step-stone bridge” is statistically irrelevant.

  23. Frans said,

    July 24, 2015 @ 7:53 am

    Bas J is right. The Dutch article is clearly a translation of the English article. If there were any lingering doubts, its creation changelog should serve to remove them:

    (huidig | vorige) 24 sep 2010 23:01‎ Taketa (Overleg | bijdragen)‎ . . (1.503 bytes) (+1.503)‎ . . (Nieuw, vrij gebaseerd op de Engelstalige Wikipedia)

    (New, liberally based on English Wikipedia)

    Stapsteen is a word, but I've never heard of a stapstenen brug before.

    At the dbnl ngram viewer, where I couldn't find a way to link to the results, there are 45 results for stapsteen, mostly in the last 5 to 6 decades, 93 for stapstenen (stepping stones), exclusively in the last 6 decades, and 0 results for stapstenen brug. From some clicking around in the results, it would seem that virtually all results are used metaphorically.

  24. Mirielle said,

    July 25, 2015 @ 5:05 am

    The variant stepstone bridge illustrates the tendency to drop -ing (it is a shortening of stepping-stone bridge). David L. Gold gives many examples of the tendency in "'Frying pan' versus 'frypan': A Trend in English Compounds?," American Speech, vol. 44, 1969, pp. 299-302.

  25. L said,

    July 27, 2015 @ 12:06 pm

    "For what it's worth, although the song "I'm Not Your Stepping Stone" was covered by Britishers the Sex Pistols, it originated with yankees Boyce & Hart and was originally recorded by American patriots Paul Revere and His Raiders."

    Oh, I always thought that song was by the Rolling Stones. Or, as they're known in the US, "Roll-stone band."

  26. Arni L said,

    July 27, 2015 @ 5:39 pm

    The Icelandic version seems to be a neologism. I have never heard it. The only Google entries refer to the is.wikipedia stub.

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