Grammar

Why We Say, ‘Take It With a Grain of Salt’

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Have you ever wondered about the expression involving taking something ‘with a grain of salt’? Here’s the story behind the curious phrase.

From time to time, I’ll take a look at a popular idiom and give you, as best as possible, the explanation behind it. “Taking something with a grain of salt” is an example of an idiom.

An idiom is a phrase that has a unique meaning in our language that might be different from what it looks like it might mean at face value. When we mention that “grain of salt,” we’re not talking about seasoning food. That’s what I mean about the phrase having a meaning different from what you might assume.

The phrase has a British counterpart, which involves taking something with a “pinch of salt.” When we use the phrase, we’re talking about using skepticism or refusing to accept something at face value.

I always find it interesting that we sometimes don’t know how an idiom came into being. Yet once we know its meaning, we accept that little combination of words without questioning that.

Some of us, though, still like to know how people came to use such a phrase.

So where did this one come from?

There are a few theories, though no definitive answer, unfortunately.

Reader’s Digest tells us that some point all the way back to 77 AD and the Roman author Pliny the Elder. Pliny, also known as Gaius Plinius Secundus, may have used the phrase when translating an antidote for poison. He said you should take the antidote, they say, “with a grain of salt.” Presumably, that would help make the mixture easier to take. That’s an odd idea, though not impossible. But most of us take needed medicine with a little sugar rather than salt, right?

But the point was that because there was an antidote to the poison, you could take its threat less seriously. So the “grain of salt” that made the antidote palatable also came to undermine the seriousness of the threat.

Merriam-Webster, meanwhile, says the phrase is much younger, recording its first use in 1647, but doesn’t provide details beyond that. Likewise, the Online Etymology Dictionary dates the phrase to the 1640s, adding it comes from the Latin cum grano salis.

Wikipedia throws in this thought: the Latin salis can mean “salt” or “wit.” Suppose the meaning refers to wit or wisdom rather than the chemical. In that context, the phrase might refer holding up a claim to further scrutiny to judge its truthfulness.

Either theory makes sense in its own way. The beauty of an idiom, though, is that you don’t have to “nerd out” on its origin.

So you can take something with a grain of salt without worrying about the mechanics of the idiom, focusing instead on the healthy skepticism you might need to judge the target of the phrase itself.

Funny how language works, sometimes, isn’t it?

the authorPatrick
Patrick is a Christian with more than 30 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.

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