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Speaking with Salt

For millennia, salt and life have been intertwined. Since salt is so deeply important to human health, food, and commerce, it’s no surprise that its tiny grains have worked their way into our language, too.

Latin Roots
The modern word “salary” derives from the Latin salārium, which was a term used in the Roman empire to describe an allowance given to Roman soldiers for the purchase of salt. Money and salt were closely related in ancient times—salt was so valuable it was sometimes referred to as “white gold.”

The linguist Roberta Muir writes that the Latin word salūs, meaning safety and well-being, may have been connected to the Latin word for salt (sāl)—because well-being would be impossible without salt. In that case, the English words for save, safety, salvage, savior and salvation would all trace back to salt.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first recorded use of the word “salt” in English dates all the way back to circa 1000. The word was sometimes spelled as “sealt” and “salte” before it began to appear consistently as “salt” in the seventeenth century. In 1620, for example, the English physician Tobias Venner wrote in a medical text that “The best and most common of all Sauces is Salt.”

Salt has shaped the names of cities and regions around the world. In the U.K., for example, the suffix “-wich” in a place name means that the area was once a source of salt. Cities like Sandwich and Norwich hold brine springs and wells that were important in medieval times. Other places named for salt include Salzburg (“salt town”) in Austria, Tusla (“salty”) in Bosnia, and Salsomaggiore (“the big salt place”) in Italy.

Salt Idioms
Salt shows up in many English idioms, too. Read on for a history of the most commonly used one:

She’s worth her salt. The first usage of “worth his salt” dates back to the 1830 novel The King’s Own; a character accuses a sea captain of not being worth the salt supplies brought to sea for him. The phrase gained a more widespread usage in the mid-nineteenth century after Thomas Hughes used it in his popular book, Tom Brown’s School Days: “Everyone who is worth his salt has enemies.”

He’s the salt of the earth. This phrase comes from the Bible. In the parable of the Sermon of the Mount, Jesus calls his loyal and persecuted followers “the salt of the earth.” It’s been used ever since as a shorthand for morality and worthiness.

Take it with a grain (or pinch) of salt. This idiom—meaning to accept something with reservations—traces back to the seventeenth century. The original phrase used the word “grain” of salt, but we now often say “pinch” instead.

Rub salt into the wound. This phrase was first used in 1944 Australian newspaper article and quickly spread around the English-speaking world. By 1967, the British author P.G. Wodehouse used the idiom in his novel Company for Henry.

Below the salt. To be “below the salt” means to be socially inferior or unacceptable. The phrase originated in the social hierarchy of English medieval times. Only the upper crust could easily afford salt—a precious commodity at the time. During meals, the saltshaker was typically placed at the center of the dining table. The nobility with the highest rank were seated “above the salt,” closer to the lord and lady of the house, while those with lower social standing were seated “below” it.