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What Good is a Grain of Salt?

Every so often, I hear people (myself included) say that something said should be taken “with a grain of salt.”

I have never understood what one grain of salt could do. I have tasted one grain of salt. It tastes like salt, though hardly enough to make a difference. Try putting one grain of salt on anything to which you would add salt and see if it tastes salty. It won’t.

I know that the phrase is an idiom that means “to be skeptical about what is said,” but I have never considered the origin. I recently read several books by Richard Lederer, who famously writes about English word play (puns, oxymorons, anagrams, usages, etymologies). One book in particular, The Play of Words, has piqued my interest about origins of idioms.

So, I looked up “grain of salt” and found several sources that trace it back to 77 AD and Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis Historia. In one of the 37 books, there is an antidote for a poison: “two dried walnuts, two figs, and twenty leaves of rue; pound them all together, after having added a grain of salt.” This antidote only works if the person is fasting, Pliny wrote.

The problem comes in the translation. In Latin, addito salis grano (“after having added a grain of salt”) is what Pliny wrote. But many translated it according to the grammar of modern European languages rather than Classical Latin. It became cum grano salis (“with a grain of salt”).

Use of the phrase in English dates to 1647 when it appears in John Trapp’s Commentary or Exposition Upon all the Epistles and the Revelation of John the Divine: “This is to be taken with a grain of salt.”

So, to take something with a grain of salt is to guard against its noxious effects. Today, that means to guard against the noxious effects of the words people use.

Until next time! Use the right words!


September 7, 2015 - Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , ,

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