Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Pour Salt In An Open Wound

Posted by Elyse Bruce on December 9, 2010

Whether it’s “pour salt in an open wound” or “rub salt in an open wound” or simply “salt in wound” the meaning is the same.  Whatever has been said or done, hurts as much as having salt applied to a wound in the hopes that it will make everything better eventually.

In May 1965, “A Hurt Mother” wrote to Dear Abby wherein she complained:

I have never been a butting-in mother-in-law, but my sons’ wives never cared much for me.  I’ve never gone to their homes without an invitation, and those invitations were very rare.  But the wives’ families were always in and out.  I wasn’t missed.  My sons slowly turned away from me.  On Mother’s Day I always get expensive gifts with beautiful cards with verses saying what a wonderful mother I am and how much they love me! It is like rubbing salt in the wound.  One son hasn’t been in my home for three years.

Back on September 12, 1957, the Milwaukee Journal carried a somewhat amusing story about President Eisenhower.  It seems that he had taken some time away from his formal duties as President for a round of gold in Newport, Rhode Island.  The news bite entitled “Ike’s Gold Slips, Then He Gets Salt In Wound” relayed that:

President Eisenhower has been playing something less than satisfying golf since he started his vacation at this seaside resort.  He has been shooting two and three strokes over par on an embarrassing number of holes at the Newport Country Club.  And as though his own efforts were not enough, the chief executive underwent a shaking experience the other day.  A man playing in front of him shot a hole in one.  The lucky golfer was Gus Pagel, an electrical designer who plays at the country club on week ends.  Pagel, of course, was delighted to the point of jabbering to every person within range of his voice.   The president made the clubhouse turn and encountered Pagel, who told him in painstaking detail about his wonderful shot.  “I’ve only seen two of those,” the president said seriously.  “Well, sir, I’ve only seen one,” Pagel replied.

In 1949, The Spartanburg Herald carried a column by Robert Ruark.  On March 4 he wrote a piece entitled “Robert Ruark Says Navy and Air Force Carrying On Cold War.”  It was a lengthy piece and near the end of the piece, he wrote:

A lot of Navy feels today that if Mr. Symington fulfills an undeclared but fairly obvious aim to control everything that flies then the big Navy is a defunct duck.  Along these lines the Air Force’s successful public relations coups, such as stealing the Navy’s present show with a dashing feat like the round-the-world nonstop trip, is sheer salt in wound, and regarded as remarkably dirty pool.  The assumption is that a tour de force like the big round-tripper is coldly designed to impress Congress and the public with the fact that you no longer need a special air branch in your sea forces, and that ground-based airpower can win all alone.

The Glasgow Herald published a review of the movie “Sweet Devil” on June 21, 1938 that read in part:

British comedy films in many foreign countries have the reputation (however unjustly) of being close to the custard pie stage.  It would have been much better in this film if the custard pie throwing had been omitted — it was too much like rubbing salt in the wound.  Bobby Howes and Jean Gillie can hardly be expected to rise above such adolescent humour.  Such characters as t hey are supposed to portray never existed, except in Mack Sennett’s earliest efforts.

In the end, though, the phrase “salt in the wound” comes from the days when salt was rubbed into wounds as an antiseptic.   During the earlier centuries, when England was establishing its navy, most sailors were forced into service.  While at sea, punishment was often lashes with a cat’o’nine tails. These whippings would almost always break the skin, and salt was rubbed into the wound to prevent infection.  In this way, “salt in wound” was a very literal, stinging phrase.

And then there are those who will tell you that the early beginnings of the phrase come from the Bible.  Jesus did not tell his disciples, “You are the sugar of the world.” He is credited as saying to them, “You are the salt of the earth.”  Even back then in ancient times, doctors would sprinkle wounds with salt in the hope of fighting off infection. 

Since salt was an antiseptic that performed the negative function of preventing meat from spoiling and the positive function of disinfecting wounds.  The sting of having one’s negative behaviours brought to the forefront by the teachings of the disciples was akin to “salt in wound.”

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