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Something could be carved in stone, or etched in stone. Or it could be set in concrete or set in mortar.

But if someone asked me to set something in stone, I wouldn't know how to do it, since stone doesn't set. Is there another meaning of "set" that means to carve or etch? Perhaps related to the word "type-set"?

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    Have you tried looking in a dictionary? > oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/set – Roaring Fish Apr 23 '16 at 6:01
  • It is likely a combination of "set in concrete" and "etched in stone", arising partly from simple confusion of the two and partly because it suggests that whatever's being discussed is even more rigid than if it were set in concrete. Since it is a metaphor, of course, it does not need to "make sense" in any physical sense. – Hot Licks Apr 23 '16 at 12:43
  • @RoaringFish - I don't see how that link provides any useful information. – Hot Licks Apr 23 '16 at 12:44
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    @hotlicks ~ the dictionary shoes that there is more to 'set' than simply the sense of harden like concrete or mortar as the OP appears to believe, and includes the sense of placing as in setting a stone in a ring or making an arrangement. – Roaring Fish Apr 23 '16 at 13:20
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The earliest I can find the expression "set in stone" in Google books is 1830:

This square is enclosed by handsome iron railing, set in stone.

And of course this railing is literally set in stone, and not an occurrence of the metaphor you're asking about. This iron railing would indeed be fairly difficult to alter.

It's possible that the metaphor originated not from words that are set in stone, but objects.

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    Yeah, it used to be fairly common to see an iron railing installed by drilling down into stonework, inserting the iron post, and filling the hole with mortar or some sort of pot metal. – Hot Licks Apr 23 '16 at 18:31
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Whilst it is not easily possible to engineer a setting in stone, some things are set in stone by nature.

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Set can mean the verb "to place". (I believe "set" is actually the word with the largest entry in the dictionary, fact fans, due to its many different meanings in many different contexts).

If I cut a railing-shaped hole in a lump of natural rock, then push a railing down into it, I have "placed, ie set, that railing in stone".

I would probably add some cement or glue to hold it in place, so technically I've "set it in stone, using cement". But it's still "placed in stone" or "set in stone".

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In his wonderful book, Stone by Stone, Robert Thorson writes,

“Rock is raw material in situ. Stone usually connotes either human handling or human use, although it can also be used to describe naturally produced fragments of rock larger than a cobble.”

So stone could mean "something that was modified by human influence", just like concrete. And since it is an idiom, you don't have to take it literally to mean a naturally-occurring-stone.

To set here can mean anything from cast, carve, etch etc. And stone means something that underwent some process to reach its final form, which is permanent and very difficult to change.

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