A wry view of life for the world-weary

What Is The Origin Of (113)?…


Take with a grain of salt

When searching through the internet you come across a lot of stuff that you have to take with a grain (or pinch) of salt. We use this phrase to suggest that we are applying a degree of scepticism to what has been relayed to us. After all, we don’t want to be seen to be too gullible. But where does the phrase come from?

Salt was a very important condiment in ancient times but as it was difficult to get it was highly valued. It has spawned a number of idioms which pepper our language. Roman legionaries were said to have been paid in part in salt to make their nosh more palatable, the origin of our word salary (from salarium). The phrase, to be worth your salt, was used as approbation of your worth and effectiveness. To eat salt with someone was used to signify that you enjoyed their company and friendship. In polite society the salt cellar was placed in the middle of the table and so to be above the salt meant that you were sitting close to your host and, as a consequence, in a favourable position. Trollope used salt, the salt of youth, to indicate spirit. And, of course, we have the Biblical salt of the earth and many more usages.

In Book 23 of his Naturalis Historia, Pliny the Elder tells the tale of Mithridates the Great who in an attempt to resist assassination developed a panacea which was effective against all known toxins. He took his potion daily – according to Pliny it consisted of over 50 different additives, each tested for its potency on prisoners, which were ground into a powder and made into a chewable tablet which he took addito salis grano, with a grain of salt. It is known today as the mithridate, although what it was and whether it was effective is not clear.

What remains of classical texts is down to happenstance and the diligence (or otherwise) of scribes, often monks, who as part of their daily duties would copy out manuscripts. They were notoriously inaccurate – I spent part of my third year at university comparing versions of the same text trying to decipher what was the original – and often prone to introduce their own thought or the mores of the time into the texts. And this is probably what we have here.

Medieval theories were that Pliny was sceptical as to the veracity of the Mithridatic story and was reporting it with the rider to take it with a pinch of salt. This is unlikely to be correct, firstly because grain of salt doesn’t appear to have been a signal in Roman literature to be wary of what was being said. If he really meant to put the reader on warning, Pliny would probably have used something more current. Secondly, the Latin phrase that has been associated with our idiom is a piece of mediaeval Latin, cum grano salis, which almost certainly didn’t appear in the original text.

The figurative usage of the phrase dates to at least the 17th century. John Trapp’s Commentary on the Old and New Testaments, dated 1648, contains the sentence, “this is to be taken with a grain of salt”. The variant, pinch, is a much more modern variant, probably appearing for the first time in print in 1948, ironically, in a book about Roman History, F R Cowell’s Cicero and the Roman Republic, “Cicero and his friends took more than the proverbial pinch of salt before swallowing everything written by these earlier authors”.

Of course, a pinch is more than a grain. We are much more profligate these days.

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