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It was established on a rocky foundation.

Does it mean steady or shaky?

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There's no way of knowing. What is "it"? What is the context? –  Andrew Leach Jul 22 '13 at 18:30
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Knowing the source of the example and what else was said about the "rocky" foundation would help determine if the source meant "shaky" or merely misused "rocky" and perhaps mean "rock-solid" foundation. The more you bring to your questions, the better the answers! :-) –  Kristina Lopez Jul 22 '13 at 18:45
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closed as unclear what you're asking by FumbleFingers, MετάEd, jwpat7, p.s.w.g, Kristina Lopez Jul 22 '13 at 21:08

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1 Answer

It depends upon the context.

If we're talking about a house, rocky would take its primary meaning of consisting or formed of rock, which would tend to imply that it was fairly steady.

If we're speaking metaphorically, however, rocky is likely taking its secondary meaning of tending to rock or shake; unsteady instead. This is actually an idiomatic expression which means that something was poorly conceived or incorrectly implemented from its start.

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Without further context it's simply not possible to justify that assertion. A significant proportion (possibly even most) written instances of "on a rocky foundation" clearly mean on a solid/stable foundation. I think largely because of that ambiguity it's not really "idiomatic" compared to on a shaky foundation today, as that chart shows. –  FumbleFingers Jul 22 '13 at 18:46
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While you're probably right, there really isn't enough to go on from the OP's question to say with all certainty that is what was meant. –  Kristina Lopez Jul 22 '13 at 18:46
    
@FumbleFingers, jinx! –  Kristina Lopez Jul 22 '13 at 18:47
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@Kristina: Check out my link. I think that's proof enough that a century or two ago, a rocky foundation was normally "solid". Today we use rocky differently; consequently, people would tend to avoid OP's form completely these days. –  FumbleFingers Jul 22 '13 at 18:49
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I hadn't realized that the OP might have run across a literal usage of this phrase, and have edited my response to reflect that. Thanks for the notes guys! –  Mason Hemmel Jul 22 '13 at 18:53
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