“Leave No Stone Unturned” – Phrase Origin

It’s interesting to know how the expressions that we use so often (and that have sometimes become cliché) originated. The phrase “Leave no stone unturned,” for example, is one that we hear in both casual talk and scholarly work today. But did you know that this expression came to us many centuries ago?

The phrase “leave no stone unturned” originated from a Greek legend that recounts the Oracle of Delphi telling Polycrates to “move every stone” in order to find a hidden treasure. This legend was translated into English in the 1500s using the phrasing “Leave no stone unturned.”

How fascinating that something said in ancient Greece—whether it came from the mouth of an oracle or a storyteller, would be part of the modern world’s lexicon. In this article, we are going to find out more about the history of this idiomatic expression and its meaning.

Etymology and Meaning of “Leave No Stone Unturned”

Surely you have heard the phrase “Leave no stone unturned” when someone was talking about a very important task or when trying to find someone. According to Merriam-Webster, this idiomatic expression means, “to make every effort to find someone or something.”

Other definitions of this expression include:

  • To make every possible effort.
  • To do something thoroughly.
  • To exhaust all possible resources in order to achieve something.

This expression can be used not only when you are trying to find something important but also when you need to do something of immense value.

It also has a serious tone to it, which is why it is rarely used in very casual talk and is more often used in formal situations or in written communications. That is not to say, however, that you can’t use it in everyday talk if you want to.

This phrase definitely very effective in communicating that a task is of utmost importance. So if you want to steer the conversation into a more serious note, it’s a useful phrase to have in your vocabulary.

But how exactly did this expression come down to us, and how was it first used?

A Greek Legend As Recounted by Erasmus

The most well-known story of how the expression “Leave no stone unturned” came about goes back to the 1500s, during the time of Dutch philosopher Desiderius Erasmus. Erasmus, touted as “one of the greatest scholars of the Northern Renaissance,” translated stories from Greek and Roman sources.

One of the stories that Erasmus translated was a Greek legend dating back to 477 BC, with the Battle of Plataea during the Persian War as its backdrop. During this battle, King Xerxes of Persia invaded Greece in an attempt to make his European conquest complete. Xerxes had just come from several victories, including those at Thermopylae and Artemisium.

The prospect of a win, therefore, seemed to be only inevitable. But they could not be more wrong.

Unfortunately for the Persians, their troops in Europe, with Mardonius in command, were not strong enough to conquer Greece. In the Battle of Plataea, the Greeks overpowered the Persian troops, delivering a huge blow to Xerxes and his attempt at conquest.

The battle a complete loss to the Persians, Mardonius decided to hide his treasure by burying it in the ground near his tent and flee. Word came around that a great deal of treasure was hidden in Plataea and eventually reached the ears of Polycrates.

Wanting to get a hold of the treasure himself, he bought the land and ventured to search for the treasure, but he could not find it anywhere. Frustrated, Polycrates decided to consult the Oracle of Delphi.

According to legend, the Oracle told Polycrates to “move every stone” or to look under every stone. And voila—when Polycrates did exactly that, he saw the hidden gold. 

It is said that the English translation of the Oracle’s words was “Leave no stone unturned” instead of “Move every stone,” and that is how we use it today. 

There is a French idiom that is closely related to this expression, which is “Remuer ciel et terre,” which means “To move heaven and earth.” Like the phrase “Leave no stone unturned, it also is a common way of saying to do everything possible to achieve a goal.

From Crab-Hunting

There is also a much less exciting story about how the expression came down to us from history. That is the story of crab hunters overturning stones by the shores to look for crabs. If you think about it, it actually makes sense. Crabs do hide under rocks.

Although, if you ask me, the expression “Leave no stone unturned” sounds a bit too serious to simply be used when hunting for crustaceans at the beach—at least nowadays. 

Usage by Euripides

Another instance where the expression was seen was in the Heraclidae, a tragic play by Euripides around 430 BC. In the play, Euripides uses the expression “Leave no rock unturned,” notably using the word “rock” instead of “stone.”

The meaning, however, is still the same as with “Leave no stone unturned,” which is to do all possible means to achieve an end. 

Other ancient texts where the same expression can be found include the letters of Pliny the Young and Theocritus. 

Whichever of these came first, it’s clear that the expression has been around for several centuries, and it has endured because it captures the sense of urgency involved when relating a very important undertaking—with, of course, the right amount of flair to make the expression last for generations.

Example Sentences

As long as you know the meaning of the phrase, it’s easy to use it in a sentence. Just remember that you can use it when looking for someone or something or while doing a crucial task. Here are some example sentences to help you use this expression in your own writing or conversations:

  • The police did a remarkable job during the investigations and left no stone unturned to find out who was responsible for the crime.
  • We will leave no stone unturned to keep this institution running. 
  • He was a tenacious journalist who left no stone unturned when covering a story.
  • As soon as I realized that my key was missing, I looked for it and left no stone unturned, but it was nowhere to be found.

Synonyms for “Leave No Stone Unturned”

You don’t have to keep using the same phrase over and over again. Switch things up by using synonyms of this expression.

Here are some other ways you can convey the same message in your conversations:

  • Go through with a fine-tooth comb
  • Look high and low
  • Move heaven and earth
  • Search high heaven
  • Turn inside out
  • Turn upside down
  • Leave nothing to be desired

Example Sentences

Here are examples of how to use these synonyms in a sentence:

  • She went through the whole stack of documents with a fine-tooth comb, but not once did her son’s name appear.
  • I looked high and low for the ring that my mother gave me, and I still couldn’t find it.
  • His father moved heaven and earth to send him to an Ivy League school, and he didn’t take it for granted.
  • I could search high heaven, but I still wouldn’t find anyone I love more than you.
  • They turned the house inside out during the investigation, and it finally bore fruit. They found the missing document.

Some words that can be used in place of this expression are:

  • Scrutinize
  • Probe
  • Investigate
  • Examine

Conclusion

Whether this idiomatic expression came down to us from a Greek legend, as an expression that crab-hunters would use, or as a result of the literary genius of a Greek dramatist, it’s safe to say that it’s a nifty phrase to have in your vocabulary.

Try using it or any of its synonyms the next you need to tell someone to do everything possible to achieve an end or look for a very valuable thing.

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