Pinch of salt

Yeah, right.

Dear Word Detective: Where does the phrase “to take what he says with a pinch of salt” come from and how does it relate to not entirely believing what someone tells you? — Tom.

Good question. Speaking of salt, whatever happened to that business about too much of the stuff being bad for you? I’m no foodie; the three food groups that prance proudly through my daily diet are fat, salt and sugar. But lately, whenever I eat in a restaurant, I’m amazed at the insane amount of salt they put in and on everything. I guess I’m supposed to drink lots of beer. Don’t hold your breath.

Then again, salt (sodium chloride to its friends) is essential to life as we know it, so better too much than none, I suppose. We inherited our modern English word “salt” from the Old English “sealt,” which in turn came from the Latin “sal” and the Greek “hals,” which meant both “salt” and “sea.”

Salt has played a vital role in human civilization, and that importance is reflected in the remarkable number of popular words and phrases that center on salt. Roman soldiers were given an allowance, called a “salarium,” with which to buy salt to make their food more palatable; that Latin word lives on in our modern “salary.” Salt was not only a necessity of life but also a symbol of worth and value. “To be worth one’s salt” was a measure of a person’s capability and effectiveness, and “to eat salt with” someone was to enjoy their hospitality and friendship. To be seated “above the salt” (referring to the salt cellar traditionally placed in the middle of a dinner table) was to be closer to the host and thus in a position of favor and privilege. When Jesus told his followers that they were “the salt of the earth,” he was invoking salt as a symbol of incorruptibility and honesty. Salt was also a metaphor for that which makes life worthwhile and interesting (“He was a man not yet forty years of age, with still much of the salt of youth about him,” Trollope, 1866), as well as spirit and wit in conversation or writing (“She speaks with salt, And has a pretty scornefulnesse,” 1639).

“To take something with a pinch of salt” (or “with a grain of salt”) means to accept a statement with a certain amount of skepticism and not to assume that it is entirely accurate or complete (“A more critical spirit slowly developed, so that Cicero and his friends took more than the proverbial pinch of salt before swallowing everything written by these earlier authors,” 1943). The expression has been found in print in English starting in the mid-17th century, though it is probably much older.

The simplest explanation for “with a pinch of salt” is that the phrase likens accepting a statement with skepticism to making an iffy dish of food more palatable with a dash of salt, a metaphor nicely illustrated by the quotation about Cicero above. There is, however, a more colorful story associated with the idiom. The Roman historian Pliny the Elder, recounting the conquest of Pontus by the armies of Rome, reported that the Roman general Pompey had discovered that the vanquished king, Mithridates (still with me?), had made himself immune to poisons by taking small doses of poison along with “a grain of salt.” It’s pretty clear that Pliny took Pompey’s story literally, but Medieval writers apparently decided that Pliny was using “grain of salt” to indicate that he was skeptical of Pompey’s account. Thus, goes the tale, “grain of salt” meaning “with some doubts” goes all the way back to Pliny the Elder.

There are two problems with this explanation. First, “grain of salt” was not an established idiom in Pliny’s Rome, so if he was trying to signal skepticism by using the phrase, he was wasting his time. Pliny, Pompey and Mithridates were all apparently dead serious about the poison and salt combo. Secondly, the Latin phrase meaning “with a grain of salt” usually cited as being in Pliny’s account, “cum grano salis,” isn’t actually there. Pliny uses the Classical Latin equivalent “addito salis grano.” The form of “Cum grano salis” is Medieval Latin, which tends to indicate that the story of Pliny’s skepticism as the source of the idiom was cooked up quite a bit after the fact. So the truth is almost certainly that “with a grain (or pinch) of salt” originated sometime in the Middle Ages and always simply referred to making dull food more exciting (or a tall tale easier to swallow) by sprinkling a bit of salt on it.

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