Worth Your Salt
Who would have thought there was so much to say about salt? It's such a common commodity these days that we take it for granted, but salt is a very valuable material. Not only do our bodies need salt but due to its usefulness in preserving and seasoning food it's been widely fought over throughout history. Today it's also the feature of many different words and idioms. For example, we call the money we're paid to work each month a 'salary.' It's interesting to know that the origins of this word are all about salt, or in Latin 'sal.' The material was so precious to the Romans that soldiers were given part of their pay in salt instead of money. This was known as 'salarium' payment, which over the years became 'salary.'
Thousands of years ago people discovered that putting salt in or on food helped it last longer. We know now that this is because high quantities of salt make it hard for bacteria to live. Early humans may not have understood the reason for this, but they certainly understood its value. Salt meant that food that rotted quickly could be kept much longer after harvest time. This development helped civilizations to survive and grow across the world.
Modern table salt is most commonly extracted from salt beds. These are huge deposits of salt that have formed underground after a prehistoric sea or lake has dried up. The salt is mined by drilling holes in the rock. Some modern cities, such as Salzburg in Austria, owe their names to the salt quarries that once employed thousands of workers. But before industrial times, salt was very difficult to extract in large quantities. That's why it could be traded like money. The Ancient Greeks apparently bought slaves with salt, which may be where the expression 'worth your salt' comes from. This idiom is still used to mean 'you're worth the money you're paid.' Around 2200 BC the Chinese Emperor Hsia Yu took advantage of salt's value by introducing the first salt tax. This tax became common practice in many different civilizations. In fact, high salt taxes were one of the reasons peasants were upset in France in the early 18th century, which led to the French Revolution and the destruction of the French monarchy.
So that's some of the interesting history of salt. Now let's have a look at how salt has made its way into the English language. A phrase that people often use is to 'take something with a pinch of salt.'
MEANING: To consider strongly that something might be untrue.
EXAMPLE: 'You should take everything Mike says with a pinch of salt. He likes to try and impress new people in the office with his stories.'
DERIVATION: The phrase probably comes from Ancient Greek medical texts. Many medicine recipes at the time recommended that people took the mixture - which was usually disgusting - with a grain of salt. It seems that in 17th century England scholars started using the phrase as a joke, to mean 'this is something you shouldn't trust.'
A more unpleasant sounding idiom that's also popular in casual conversation is 'to rub salt into a wound.'
MEANING: To make someone feel even worse about something.
EXAMPLE: 'It was terrible watching my soccer team lose at the weekend. And the referee rubbed salt into the wound when he sent our goalkeeper off.'
DERIVATION: The origins of this are fairly straightforward. It's extremely painful to pour salt, or salty water, onto an open wound. That painful image has allowed the phrase to stick around in the English language for centuries.
Of course salt doesn't always mean something negative. For example it's a great compliment to be called '[the] salt of the earth.' But what does it mean?
MEANING: To be a reliable and trustworthy person.
EXAMPLE: 'I'm pleased they gave Megan the job. She's the salt of the earth -- She's kind to everyone and never complains.'
DERIVATION: The origins of this one are a little trickier, as you might expect. It actually comes from the Bible, Matthew 5:13. In this passage Jesus tells his disciples that they're as valuable to him as 'the salt of the earth.' It's quite a strange phrase, but maybe that's why it stuck in peoples' minds.
Now let's see if you can pick out the meaning of some salt idioms in a quick quiz (check your answers at the end).
- * Sharon is a work colleague who is worth their salt. She's definitely ______
a) not working as hard as everyone else.
b) doing her work very well.
c) not following the boss' orders.
- * I heard a scary ghost story the other day, but I always take such stories with a pinch of salt. I don't think _____
a) you're meant to believe them completely.
b) I can sleep at night anymore.
c) You can ignore stories like that.
- * I'm thinking of salting some money away. I think it's a good idea to ____
a) spend all your money before you are 30.
b) show off how rich you are to all your friends.
c) save money for the future in the bank.
- * My electricity provider sent me a bill that was twice what I expected. And just to rub salt in the wound the letter said that electricity prices will go up soon. The letter ______
a) made me feel even worse when I already felt bad.
b) included some important preserving techniques.
c) helped to make customers feel better.
- * My best friend is the salt of the earth. He _____
a) always keeps secrets from me.
b) is very interested in money.
c) is always trustworthy and kind.
How did you do with the short quiz? Are you worth your salt, or did the quiz rub salt into the wound? It just goes to show how even the things we take for granted can create a lot of meanings, and have a curious history too. So that's something to think about the next time you're shaking a little extra seasoning onto your meal.
(Answers: 1 - b; 2 - a; 3- c; 4 - a; 5 - c).