Worth their salt: words and phrases with roots in ‘salt’
Who do you have to buy condiments from at the dining table? The salt cellar.
Now, admittedly that joke is better spoken than written – if your sides haven’t split, that’s what I’m blaming – but it does allow me to kick off this salt-themed blog post with a fun fact about the cellar in salt cellar. It comes from the obsolete saler, meaning (ahem) ‘salt cellar’, and the spelling changed to assimilate with the common word cellar. So salt cellar sort of means salt salt cellar, which in turn means salt salt salt cellar, and… well, I could go on, but I’m not being paid by the word.
Payment in kind
That saler comes ultimately from the Latin salarium, technically meaning ‘pertaining to salt’. But what pertains to salt except salt, you may ask? Well, the answer is hidden in a modern-day word that you probably eagerly wait for once a month or once a week. The Latin salarium also denoted money allowed to Roman soldiers for the purchase of their salt – and, hence, their pay, which is where the word salary comes from. (You may have heard that the soldiers were paid in salt, but this isn’t quite true – there was one step in between.) From the early twentieth century onwards, you (or more likely one of your ancestors) might also have called yourself part of the salariat, modelled on salary and proletariat. Hopefully they earned their wage – that is, were worth their salt.
Salary isn’t the only everyday word that owes its life to salt, though; salad ultimately comes from the Latin sal, ‘salt’, via the Old French salade. While salt might not be the first thing you’d think to put on an iceberg lettuce – or it might; we’re not judging – we have the Romans to thank again. It was apparently usual for them to season their vegetables with brine. I guess that’s what they needed all that salt money for.
In fact, salt has often been considered synecdochical for a meal or for hospitality – being viewed as a necessary adjunct to food. Thus to eat salt with someone is to enjoy their hospitality, while to take bread and salt is to swear an oath. And since the salt was placed in a prominent position on the table, then you would once have been seated above the salt (if an honoured guest) or below the salt if you weren’t quite so fêted.
The salt of the earth
If somebody is considered the salt of the earth, then they are ‘a person or group of people of great kindness, reliability, or honesty’. Which is perhaps odd, given that salty soil is unlikely to grow very much (I say, based on a clip from The Simpsons. Don’t let me down, Homer.) So, where does this one come from?
If you’ve followed your usual instincts and said ‘Shakespeare’, then… you’re wrong. It’s the other one. The Bible. This saying comes from Matthew 5:13: ‘You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot’. Many books could be written about the application of this teaching, but you can make do with the summaries offered by Wikipedia. In this instance, I don’t think I have been the salt of the earth…
Turning to modern slang, if we may, you may have seen salty being used in a way that has nothing to do with seaside fish and chips. While the word, of course, means something that contains salt, it is also American slang meaning ‘angry, irritated; hostile’. At least, I thought it was quite modern (for which, read: I heard it and had no idea what was going on) – the Oxford English Dictionary points out that it’s been around since at least 1938. In this instance, it’s in the phrase to jump salty, meaning ‘to undergo a sudden change of mood or outlook; to become annoyed or angry (with someone).’
It’s not entirely clear where this sense of salty came from, though it may be via the American nautical slang salty, said of tough or hard-bitten sailor. In turn, salt was a colloquial term for a sailor, particularly one who had much experience – and it doesn’t take many years aboard the mainsail (spoilers: I don’t know anything about sailing) to spot the connection with salty seawater.
And now for something completely different
There are two separate entries for salt as a noun in the OED (and that’s not even including SALT, the acronym standing for Strategic Arms Limitation Talks – negotiations, particularly those involving the US and the Soviet Union, aimed at limiting or reducing nuclear armaments). The other noun salt is obsolete, but in the 16th and 17th centuries you might have used salt to mean ‘sexual desire or excitement’ – usually of a dog. ‘My dogge proferth to the saute’ as W. Horman coyly noted in the aptly-titled Vulgaria, published in 1519. The root of this salt is also Latin, but has nothing to do with the table condiment – except for influence on spelling. Rather, this comes for salire, ‘to leap’, which also gives us words like assail, assault, consul, exult, insult, salacious, salient, and possibly even salmon.
And there’s no need to take that with a grain of salt.