Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

With A Grain Of Salt

Posted by Elyse Bruce on April 28, 2014

When you take something with a grain of salt, you don’t take what’s being said or written as being completely factual or true.  In fact, it could be said that you aren’t taking it at face value.

Interestingly enough, it sometimes appears as a Latin phrase as in the news article entitled, “Republicans Smell Blood In Presidential Race” written by Chris Cillizza and Aaron Blake for the Washington Post on August 10, 2011.  The article spoke about data collected from the Washington Post and the Pew Research Center that looked at whether Americans wanted Obama to face a primary challenge.  Along with the statistics and the poll results, the writers added:

Polls are, of course a snapshot in time and are rightly taken cum grano salis. But, it’s not hard to read between the data points on this particular survey.

Of course, the expression was also used in English as in the article by NFL National Lead Writer, Ty Schalter when he wrote, “Detroit Lions’ Success: Take It With A Grain Of Salt” published a bit more than a month later on September 22, 2011.  He even included the idiom in the article.

As fans, we are tempted to tap the brakes. To pull back on the reins. To take this early success with a grain of salt.

In 1935, Robert Harry Lowie wrote and published a book titled, “The Crow Indians.”  As you can imagine, the book was about the Crow Indians living on a reservation near the core of the tribal territory southeast of Billings, Montana and northwest of Sheridan, Wyoming, and were identified in the book as being related to the Sioux of the Dakotas.  In describing the politics of the camp the author wrote about, he wrote the following.

Appointed by the camp chief, the police were considered subordinate to him; and he could thus, according to Leonard, a fur trader of the thirties, veto every one of their acts.   However, the statement must be taken with a grain of salt.  The chief himself was not an autocrat, and the constabulary normally acted only on special occasions, such as those mentioned above.  Apart from these, the people hardly felt the weight of authority.

Nearly 100 years earlier, in “The Baptist Magazine” a letter was published, dated July 13, 1836 where the author was identified by only an initial, E.  The letter was published with the title, “Baptists In Scotland.”

I had almost forgotten to take notice, as I intended to do, of one of your correspondent’s statements, in detailing some of the principles of the Scotch Baptists, in the first paragraph of his letter.  He says, they “contend for a plurality of elders,mutual exhortation by the brethren on the Lord’s day, and disapprove of pastoral support.”  The first peculiarity here stated may possibly be held by many of us as a principle, but being so often departed from in practice, the assertion requires to be qualified with a grain of salt; a plurality of elders being rather looked upon as desirable, than as absolutely indispensible.  The exhortation of the brethren is generally practised, although not, I hope, in every possible case, dogmatically insisted upon; but the third statement in the above quoted sentence, that we disapprove of pastoral support, I positively deny without any qualification at all.

Interestingly enough, in Italy there is an expression:  avere sale in zucca.  Zucca (meaning pumpkin) is a humorous reference to one’s head and one’s intelligence and ability to reason.  When one is told to have salt in their pumpkin, they’re being reminded to use a little bit of intelligence and common sense to reason things out.  In other words, good judgment and some intellect is reflected in reference to the grain of salt needed to do so.

And since Italian is a romance language that derives from Latin, the connection between avere sale in zucca and cum grano salis is easily made.  In fact, up until the 20th century, the Latin cum grano salis was preferred over the English variant with a grain of salt.

But why salt?  What is the importance of salt that it should be linked to intellect and judgement?

In ancient times, salt was a necessity of life and was used as a seasoning, a preservative, a disinfectant, a unit of monetary exchange, and in ceremonies.  In fact, in 2 Chronicles 13, verse 5 the covenant of salt (one which can never be broken because it is an irrevocable pledge that promises undying fidelity to God) is spoken of thusly:

Should you not know that the Lord God of Israel gave the dominion over Israel to David forever, to him and his sons, by a covenant of salt?

Even Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD) spoke of the need for salt when he wrote:  A civilized life is impossible without salt.  Strangely enough, Pliny also mentioned the last line in a formula of 72 ingredients that were to be taken as an antidote for poison in his book Historia Naturalis.  The formula was found at the palace of King Mithridates VI in 63 BC when it was seized by the armies of Rome by General Pompey aka Pompey the Great (106-48 BC).  And what was that last line of this amazing formula, you ask?

Pliny translated the formula with this last line included:  To be taken fasting, plus a grain of salt.

Medieval writers, transcribing the writings of Pliny the Elder understood this to mean that Pliny was skeptical of the account given by General Pompey (106-48 BC) — also known as Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus — regarding the poison antidote and the many ingredients therein.  However, Pliny the Elder used the Latin term most associated with his era which would have been addito salis grano.  Instead they attributed the Medieval Latin equivalent which was cum grano salis.

What this appears to mean is that with a grain of salt was first used in Medieval times with the meaning we use these days.   That being said, the value of salt, continues to be as important to our lives now as it was centuries ago, and you don’t need to take that comment with a grain of salt.

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