Tag Archives: Etymology

A Grain of Salt (What Does That Mean?!)

Photo found here: http://www.grainofsalt.com/2010/10/what-does-with-a-grain-of-salt-even-mean/

“Take that with a grain of salt,” says your friend regarding somewhat dubious news. “I’d take that draft rumor with a grain of salt,” says the NFL Draft Expert, who says a lot of things. (Most of which apparently need salt…)

But what does it mean? Why do we say that? Where does it come from? What is the origin of that phrase, “Take it with a grain of salt”?

Let’s find out!

Taken With A Grain Of Salt

Apparently, we head (figuratively) all the way back to the first century. In the year 77 AD, a Roman author named Pliny (the Elder) shared the story of a Roman general, Pompey, in his book Naturalis Historia1, which included a “recipe” for an antidote against all poisons. (Impressive!)

In sancutariis Mithridatis, maximi regis, devicit Cn. Pompeius invenit in peculiari commentario ipsius manu conpositionem antidoti e II nucibus siccis, item ficis totidem et rutae foliis XX simul tritis, addito salis grano: ei, qui hoc ieiunus sumat, nullum venenum nociturum illo die.

(After the defeat of that mighty monarch, Mithridates, Gnaeus Pompeius found in his private cabinet a recipe for an antidote in his own handwriting; it was to the following effect: Take two dried walnuts, two figs, and twenty leaves of rue; pound them all together, with the addition of a grain of salt; if a person takes this mixture fasting, he will be proof against all poisons for that day.)2

Since the year 77 AD, some have (wrongly) used the Latin phrase, “cum grano salis”. But as you can see in the text above, Pliny wrote “addito salis grano”. (“With a grain of salt” just sounded better in English, so… we made it say that in Latin, too?)

There are two different views on what Pompey (or P. the E.) meant. One, the salt was an essential part of the potency of the antidote. Two, the salt just made it palatable enough to swallow, and thus receive the antidote’s protection against “all poisons”.

A third take on the usage of the phrase is as follows:

The Latin word salis means both “salt” and “wit”, so that the Latin phrase “cum grano salis” could be translated as both “with a grain of salt” and “with a grain (small amount) of wit”.3

Interesting! So it had a double meaning, as it does now. And, since we use it to mean something like, “this should be understood with some degree of skepticism, or doubt”, one could equate skepticism to wit, no?

Lastly, the first usage of the phrase, “This should be taken with a grain of salt” was found in a commentary on the book of Revelation, by John Trapp, published in 1647.4

And there you have it! But, since all of this information was pieced together from the articles referenced in the footer of this post, well, I think it should probably be taken with a grain of salt.

šŸ˜‰

  1. Read the full Latin text of the story here, if you’re awesome enough.
  2. This Latin/English version was found in an article at WordOrigins.com
  3. Thank you, Wikipedia!
  4. You can find anything online these days!