Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Back To The Salt Mines

Posted by Elyse Bruce on April 24, 2014

Going back to the salt mines idiomatically means that you are resuming work on a task that you don’t find very appealing, whether you’re talking about work, school, or some other activity.  The implication is that the work is requires long hours and is taxing on the person doing the work.  And it shouldn’t be mistaken to mean the same as thing as going back to the drawing board.

Before Idiomation looks at the origins of the expression, an interesting side note is that the word salary has its roots in the word salt.  According to the Oxford English Dictionary, salary is from the Latin word salarium.

ad. L. salarium, orig. money allowed to Roman soldiers for the purchase of salt, hence, their pay; subst. use of neut. sing. of salarius pertaining to salt, f. sal salt.

When it comes to salt mines, the best known and most productive ones are in Poland (on the north side of the Carpathians); in Salzburg (on the north side of the Alps); in Valentia, Navarre, and Catalonia in Spain; in Cheshire, England; and in Transylvania, Hungary, Bavaria, Switzerland, and Russia.

John W. Dean and Barry M. Goldwater Jr. wrote the biography “Pure Goldwater” published in 2008.  The book was compiled from the late Senator’s letters and journals as well as guest editorials he wrote and various radio addresses.  John W. Dean and Barry M. Goldwater Jr. admit in the book’s Preface to correcting typos, spelling out abbreviations, adding appropriate punctuation, and including minor editorial clarifications where needed.     The following excerpt is from page 93 in Part II titled, “The Senate Years: 1952 – 1965” in Chapter 7, “Learning How Washington Worked.”

After only a day in Arizona I returned to Washington, back to the salt mines.  Committee work had started on Banking and Currency, and surprisingly, I am finding the work to be delightful.  My business background and training is proving to be most valuable … We haven’t started work on the labor committee yet, but that comes up probably in two weeks …

In the Volume 42, Edition No. 3 edition of “Boy’s Life: The Boy Scout Magazine” published in March 1952, the short story titled, “Rattlesnake Country” by Arnold Bateman and illustrated by Frank Vaughn was published on page 11, and continued on page 48.

The wagon came up at noon and they sprawled in its shade to eat. Barney stayed close to Max, so Nate had no choice to talk any more slow-down stuff.  But when Max grunted and said, “All right, boys, let’s get back to the salt mines,” Nate drifted closer, his eyes hard.

“Not so fast, this afternoon, get it?” he muttered.  “Get some sense in your noggin.  The more we do, the more we’ll have to.  I’ve told Lewis’s gang a few things; they’d better not make us look too bad.  We get paid whether we do a little or a lot.  Watch it, now!”

In the book “Murder Day By Day” by American author, humorist and columnist, Irvin S. Cobb (23 June 1876 – 11 March 1944) published in 1933 he referenced the idiom in all its variations by omitting the specifics and just going with the rest.  The Duke of Paducah from Paducah, Kentucky published 60 books and 300 short stories.  When he became the youngest managing editor at the age of nineteen when he took on the job at the  Paducah Daily News.  In other words, he knew how to write, and how to write effectively.  In this novel, the following passage with the abbreviated idiom was included:

“That would be Terence,” he said.

“Well, Gilly, it’s back to the mines for me, and this day I’ll need to have my brain grinding in two — three different places at once.”

It’s a fact that mining salt has been around for centuries — at least 800 years in North America and before that, stretching back to ancient civilizations.  It’s possible that those who worked the salt mines back in the day used the idiom as well but without evidence, it’s only a guess.

What is known is that in ancient Roman times, prisoners were given the task of salt mining.  It’s also a fact that the life expectancy of prisoners working in salt mines wasn’t very long.  The reason for this was because a prisoner working in the salt mines suffered ongoing health issues (not unlike the physical impact experienced by lepers as well as mental impact experienced by those with Alzheimer’s) that eventually led to death.

But since the idiom back to the salt mines seems to be a variation — with overlapping use in literature — of back to the grindstone and back to the jute mill and back to the boiler factory and back to whatever other industry incorporated hard work and drudgery, Idiomation was unable to identify when this expression came into vogue.

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2 Responses to “Back To The Salt Mines”

  1. mutanatia said

    I noticed how in some quotes you made, this phrase seems to have a negative connotation, yet in the case of Barry Goldwater Jr.’s excerpt, it seems to have more of a positive connotation. Does the phrase have any connotation to it at all?

  2. […] going back to the salt mines.  Now, that expression has a good history as I gathered from the blog Historically Speaking.  It’s nice to know the story behind this much used expression because this will be the […]

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