Dear Word Detective: Today I heard two radio DJ’s arguing over the phrase “worth their salt.” One DJ was exclaiming that she had never heard such a phrase and therefore it never existed. Now, I have heard this phrase many times, but their argument got me to thinking, where did it come from, what does it really mean? I immediately went to your website and was dismayed when I saw that it wasn’t here. I would be very grateful for some insight. — Sarah.
Darn. Well, there goes my hope that disk jockeys were going to lead us into a new age of enlightenment. Speaking of popular media, I read last week that a certain large newspaper chain is planning to adopt something called “crowdsourcing” in its news-gathering operations, inviting readers to act as reporters and leaving it to the papers’ beleaguered editors to sift the cups of wheat from the tons of chaff that will pour in over the transom. I think this is a wonderful idea, and I’m looking forward to lots more by-popular-demand stories about the Illuminati and that so-called moon landing.
Oh, right, you had a question. “To be worth one’s salt” is definitely a well-established idiom, dating back to at least 1830 in English and found, for instance, in Robert Louis Stevenson’s adventure classic Treasure Island: “It was plain from every line of his body that our new hand was worth his salt.” The general sense of “worth his salt” and similar uses is “capable and efficient, able to handle the task at hand.” Specifically, someone who is “worth his salt” is a good employee, one well worth the wages paid, which brings us to a brief history of salt.
Although salt is one of the cheapest things found in a supermarket today (not counting those weird store-brand pickles that taste like floor wax), for most of human history salt was a scarce and valuable commodity, at some points more valuable than gold. Salt made dull (or “iffy”) food palatable, made it possible to cure and preserve meat, and was considered a necessity of life in the ancient world. Not surprisingly, the central role of salt in civilization is memorialized today in a variety of “salty” English idioms, including “with a grain of salt” (with skepticism) in reference to making an odd dish more palatable, and “the salt of the earth,” meaning the common people on whom society depends.
Salt was, in fact, considered such a necessity that Roman soldiers were either issued regular rations of salt or paid a special “salt allowance” with which to buy their own. This was known as a “salarium,” which eventually gave us our English word “salary” for regular wages. Thus today an employee who is “worth his salt” is one definitely earning his keep.