Monday, September 26, 2011

Take it With a Grain of Salt

I'm awful at keeping schedules.  Ahem:

Perhaps you've heard the phrase, "to take something with a grain of salt."  Perhaps you haven't.  If the latter is the case, then I assure you that it is a fairly common and certainly standard phrase.  It is a staple in phrase books no doubt.

 A grain of salt.  Actual size.

It means, essentially, to view something with skepticism or to not take something too seriously.  For example: "The empiricist took the psychic's prediction with a grain of salt."

The idiom is derived from the Latin phrase, cum grano salis, which you can conveniently substitute for "with a grain of salt" the next time you use the phrase and want to sound like a learned scholar.  So with the previous example: "The empiricist took the psychic's prediction cum grano salis...  B****es."

In modern day Italy, the phrase still exists in the form, "avere sale in zucca," which translates roughly as, "to have salt in your pumpkin."  Here, "pumpkin" is a metonym for "head," and the salt represents wit or intelligence (how fitting!).  Similar phrases also exist in the Dutch (een korreltje zout) and Danish (et gran salt) languages.

The origin of the idiom can be attributed to this fellow,

whom we no doubt all recognize as Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD).  His Naturalis Historia discusses the discovery of an antidote to poison, with one of the ingredients being a grain of salt.  Thus, the poison itself could be taken less seriously.  Alternately, the phrase is attributed to the Roman general Pompey, who, in an effort to build immunities against a variety of poisons, ingested poisons with a grain of salt to make them easier to swallow.

Of course the Latin word salis happens to mean both "salt" and "wit," so maybe there was a mix-up sometime during the last 2,000 years.

The more recent phrase "to take something with a pinch of salt," dates back to F. R. Cowell's Cicero & the Roman Republic (1948):

"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."

While I usually prefer things in their original, unaltered states, I certainly approve of this variation for reasons that you can probably guess (hint: it has to do with how much salt we're dealing with).


  1. I hear that expression all the time and had no idea where it came from. I guess that it's true that every day you learn something new.
    Here in Argentina (and many other latin american countries) we have an expression that goes "estas salado" or "es un salado" which translates to, he's salted/salty, which means that someone is bad luck or is having a bad luck streak.

  2. This is my catchphrase.

    Quite the enlightening post!

  3. I'm officialy in love with your writing. I have to draw you something sometime.

  4. I'm taking your post with a grain of salt.

  5. nice blog.. not so astaunashing because i dont care about salt but lol ahah... following.

  6. was it you who started the salt vs pepper debate on one of our favorite websites. Somebody there knew way to much about salt and I could only think about you. LOL

  7. I love using this phrase...sometimes a little too much, but whatever. Its just too awesome (as is "F*** Salt!" Best thing to happen to the web. EVER).

    Interesting blog though, defs followed!

  8. and today I learned something new. thanks!

  9. that close up of the grain of salt is pretty cool!


to prove that you're worth your salt.