Q&A: The origin of “salty”

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, it's the life of brine…

Q: Hey AWC, lemme see here, just trying to read my notes.

A: You have notes? Impressive. Take your time.

Q: Thanks, okay, I thought today we might talk about… “nackle”?

A: Nackle?

Q: Hmmm that doesn’t seem right. I have “NACL” written here… North American something? Oh yes! SALT! NaCl – Sodium Chloride. Can we talk about salt please?

A: Okay, don’t be so salty. Sure we can.

Q: Yes, let’s start with THAT. What’s with everyone being so “salty” lately? When did this happen?

A: Well, “salty” has been an adjective to describe something containing salt since the 15th century, but its earliest figurative meaning – according to the Online Etymology Dictionary – was in 1866, meaning “sexy” or “racy”.

Q: Ooh la la.

A: Yeah, then around 1920 it became linked to sailors – with salty meaning “tough or aggressive”. 

Q: Those “salty sea dogs”!

A: That’s them – like Popeye the sailor man, who incidentally first appeared as a comic strip in the 1920s.

Q: But what about salty meaning “angry, upset or unhappy”?

A: We see this in the late 1930s – originally as “jump salty” – which meant to unexpectedly get angry. Around 75 years later, the term became popular again as just “salty”, although it never entirely went away. 

Q: It does seem more common now though, right?

A: Yes. It seems to have peaked in the public consciousness around 2016-17, when a few dictionaries reported on its rise to fame. It seems particularly popular with younger generations today.

Q: I’ll take that with a grain of salt.

A: No really, it’s true.

Q: I meant the phrase – what’s the deal with “grain of salt”?

A: Ah okay. To “take something with a grain of salt” is to accept information with some degree of scepticism. One theory dates back to the 1st century AD/CE and an author named Pliny the Elder.

Q: Seriously? That was his name?

A: Yes – maybe his publisher thought he’d stand out on the shelves better. Anyway, he wrote literally about the Latin “cum grano salis” (a grain of salt) being a useful antidote for poison. 

Q: So is the poison in this case the information that might be false?

A: Perhaps. The phrase didn’t get a proper figurative debut until the 1640s, but again faded from use until the Americans took to it in the 20th century – with the meaning it enjoys today. Since the 1940s, the British have sometimes used “pinch of salt” instead to mean the same thing.

Q: No real explanation for it being salt then?

A: Idioms don’t care about providing explanations – you should know this by now. But your theory about it offsetting the poison makes the most sense.

Q: Okay, so what about when people say that someone is “salt of the earth”?

A: This one goes way back to the book of Matthew (5:13) in the Bible – where during Jesus’ ‘Sermon on the Mount’, he told the fishermen, shepherds and workers, “You are the salt of the earth.” 

Q: He called them salt? Wow, what a compliment.

A: Actually it WAS. Back then, salt was very valuable – so precious in fact that it was often used as money. So he was literally calling them worthy.

Q: Well I guess they wouldn’t have been salty after all.

A: Nope. Roman soldiers were even sometimes paid in salt during this time, and that’s where the word “salary” comes from – the Latin for “salt” being “sal”.

Q: Wow, that is a fun fact. Is that also where someone being “worth one’s salt” comes from?

A: Most likely – referring to them being good enough at their job to justify their salty salary – not unlike “worth one’s weight in gold” from the 1200s. However, the phrase “worth one’s salt” didn’t turn up in English until the 1800s.

Q: Imagine being told you’re worth your weight in gold and then being given a sack of salt. Sheesh, that would rub salt into the wound.

A: Haha, nice. “To rub salt into the wound” relates to making a bad situation worse – and this idiom was also first used in the 1800s. Sometimes it’s “pour salt” on the wound, and other times the salt is removed altogether and people just use “rub it in” for the same meaning.

Q: “Rub it in, why don’tcha!” Yeah, I hear that all the time. Especially if someone’s feeling particularly salty.

A: And don’t forget that if you ever spill salt – which came to be associated with bad luck during the Middle Ages – then superstition says you should throw a pinch of salt over your left shoulder.

Q: Why the left?

A: Because that’s where the devil sits and you’ll blind him.

Q: Silly me, of course that’s the answer.

A: Any other salty questions?

Q: Yeah. When did “salted caramel” suddenly become a thing?

A: It’s actually quite old, popularised in the 1970s by a French chef named Henri Le Roux. However, it wasn’t until recent times that it made its big comeback – named as a “hot flavour” in 2008 and taking the world’s products by storm ever since.

Q: And finally, is Himalayan Pink Salt the newer, purer version of precious, valuable salt from the days of the Bible?

A: Haha, well, it’s true that it does come from the Himalayas, it costs a lot more and looks pretty, but the pink colour is actually caused by impurities – so it’s less pure than the regular shaker stuff. Let’s just say that it’s worth its pink salt.

Q: Fair enough. Well, I think we made a respectable assault on all things “salt” this week. 

A: Certainly more than we would have got with “nackle”…

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