- With great limitation; with its grain of salt, or truth. As salt is sparingly used in condiments, so is truth in the remark just made.
- The Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (1894)
If pepper is the spice of life, then salt is life itself. The prized white mineral has occupied an important part in the past because it was scattered randomly across the earth's surface. In Mark Kurlansky's book Salt (2002) there are many interesting facts about the mineral and its history. One critic writes:
- Homer called salt a divine substance. Plato described it as especially dear to the gods. Today we take salt for granted, a common, inexpensive substance that seasons food or clears ice from roads, a word used casually in expressions ("salt of the earth," take it with a grain of salt") without appreciating their deeper meaning. However, as Mark Kurlansky so brilliantly relates in his world-encompassing new book, salt "the only rock we eat "has shaped civilization from the very beginning. ...
Until about 100 years ago, when modern chemistry and geology revealed how prevalent it is, salt was one of the most sought-after commodities, and no wonder, for without it humans and animals could not live. Salt has often been considered so valuable that it served as currency, and it is still exchanged as such in places today. Demand for salt established the earliest trade routes, across unknown oceans and the remotest of deserts: the city of Jericho was founded almost 10,000 years ago as a salt trading center. Because of its worth, salt has provoked and financed some wars, and been a strategic element in others, such as the American Revolution and the Civil War. Salt taxes secured empires across Europe and Asia and have also inspired revolution (Gandhi's salt march in 1930 began the overthrow of British rule in India); indeed, salt has been central to the age-old debate about the rights of government to tax and control economies.
Initially Roman soldiers received salt rations; later, they were given money to buy their own salt and this was called a salarium. It's interesting to note that because the Romans used pumpkins were to carry their rations of salt, todays Italians use pumpkin to represent the head and use the phrase "to have salt in pumpkin."
Take with a grain of salt and a lie detector, then call me in the morning
Even more notable is that the Romans not only believed that the head was filled with salt but that it also could make dangerous or tainted food safe. It was Pliny the Elder who first prescribed to take anything suspicious with a grain of salt." A grain of salt is in fact a rendition of the Latin phrase cum grano salis. In this case it may have been an antidote to poison. The origins of this expression could refer to Pliny's commentary in Natural History where he mentions the first century BC King of Pontus, Mithradates the Great. He tells how Mithradates made himself immune to poison by swallowing small amounts of it with a grain of salt.
Living in great fear of assassination by poisoning Mithradates studied the subject of antidotes extensively. By testing them on condemned criminals he is said to have invented the "universal" antidote that became widely known as mithridatum. Pliny describes some 54 different poisons and notes that Mithradates took small doses of various poisons daily to render him invulnerable. Ironically when Pompey invaded Rome and Mithridates attempted to commit suicide by poison it failed and he made one of his soldiers stab him to death. The formula for his antidote was secretly guarded until Pompey took it back to Rome where the recipe was discovered to be a simple compound of "twenty leaves of Rue pounded with two Figs, two dried Walnuts and a grain of salt."
Pliny himself makes no distinction whether this is true or wildly fantastic. However several etymologists and The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms say that this breakthrough antidote for poison called mithridate was to be taken "cum grano salis." And this seems to be the case for making it effective. By the time the phrase first appeared in English in 1647 someone may have determined that Pliny had been dubious about both the cure or its effectiveness and intended that cum grano salis to imply 'with a dose of skepticism'.
Letting the cat out of the bag
In 1934 a classic horror movie appeared that co starred Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi for the first time. Its title is The Black Cat and one trivia buff notes that part of the satanic prayer Karloff's character chants contains the readily recognizable Latin phrase "cum grano salis."
Today the common sense adage can be found in other languages. For example the Dutch say, "korreltje zout" while the Swedish use, "en nypa salt." It describes situations where something is heard and not taken too seriously or with reserve and skepticism. Somewhere along the way the catchphrase branched into "a pinch of salt" meaning if one hears something of doubtful truth or in other words if something is unpalatable then, by taking it 'with a pinch of salt', it becomes more acceptable. This may be an inroad into the arena of cooking, since oftentimes cooks will toss in a pinch of salt to make food tastier. So finding the proverb at the dinner table, it's not too far of a leap to take a tale with a grain of salt to make it more appetizing. However, the amount of salt figuratively needed to make an improbable statement acceptable often fluctuates from a few grains to a whole ocean.
Sources:Wordorigins.org Home Page
Accessed Nov 28 2004 a