That question can refer to a few different things including disposition, communication style, and food preference. As an avid foodie I’ve been well aware of salt’s presence in almost everything we eat. But it hadn’t dawned on me how widespread the use of the word “salt” is until I read the book “Salt” by Mark Kurlansky. It’s easy breezy reading and an informative narrative on the history and importance of salt throughout human existence. And I was fascinated to learn that like gold and oil, salt was once mankind’s primary currency.
Whole economies, cultures, and cities have been based on salt. Roman roads were built to transport it from the far reaches of the empire to its capital, and Roman soldiers were occasionally paid in salt. In fact, the word “salary” has its roots in “salt,” and the phrase “worth his salt” is believed to have derived from good soldiers deserving their salaries.
The German city of Munich was established in the 12th century in order to ease Bavarian collection of salt taxes. Polish salt mines were the basis of a large and wealthy empire in the 16th century and Venice defeated Genoa in a war over control of the salt routes in pre-united Italy. Even Liverpool, a place full of salty language and perhaps best known for producing four musical lads with mop tops, grew from minor port status to England’s primary salt exportation locale in the 19th century. Beatles fans should be thankful for salt!
Here in the states British loyalists wreaked havoc with patriots’ diets by intercepting salt shipments during our Revolutionary War, making it impossible for them to preserve their food.
According to Kurlansky’s research salt has more than 14,000 uses including preserving foods, dying textiles, making soap, putting out grease fires, and killing poison ivy.
Table salt, the type Americans most commonly use, is the chemical, sodium chloride. It is necessary for human digestive, respiratory, nervous, and muscular systems to function. While I was amazed by all that info, the writer in me began processing the many idioms related to salt. There are lots! But my five favorites are:
1. Back to the Salt Mines: is used to refer to returning to routine and heavy labor, and comes from the days when slaves were used to work the salt mines to provide the essential element to the ruling classes;
2. Rub Salt Into a Wound: is to deliberately make someone's bad situation worse;
3. Salt Something Away: means to store or save something, usually money;
4. Salt of the Earth: a biblical reference to the most worthy of people.
5. Worth One’s Salt: means your productivity is worth your price.
In 20th century idiomatic American English, an old salt was an experienced sailor. That term’s use led to “salty” language becoming a synonym for profanity because of sailors’ widespread use of it. The Cold War resulted in SALT (Strategic Arms Limitation Talks) and the word’s plural form, SALTS has been used as an acronym for “Smiled A Little Then Stopped.”
I could come up with many more, but will leave it to each reader to delve into the salt pits as deeply as they are drawn to do. Those with the sawbuck needed to download Mark Kurlansky’s “Salt,” can dig in right away or salt away a few Washington’s at a time to save the book’s purchase price.
Photo Courtesy of Grant Cochrane / Free Digital Photos