But this isn’t about salt as such. Rather, it is about our value – to ourselves and to others, through the analysis of the meanings of the word as used two thousand or more years ago – both in the Roman Empire, and Ancient Greece. As we explore this theme, through some biblically-derived expressions – but not with any purpose of preaching – though perhaps in more words than you would like, I do hope to provide a light touch, occasionally humorous.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I like to know the origin of words and expressions. Perhaps it came from the time in primary school, grade four, when we got new spellers. The series was an impressive one, and I wonder if this material is still taught at such young ages. What did Latin expressions have to do with the English words we had to learn to spell? Caveat emptor: Let the buyer beware. Habeas corpus. The easier material seemed to come later: the origin of the word sandwich. Then, with reference to that word, we find that it is not pronounced “Sand-Witch”, but about 10 years ago, someone contacted the BBC and insisted that the correct pronunciation is “Sam-itch”. Sure, the Earl of Sandwich had a couple of itches, but that didn’t affect the sound of his earlship in future generations. The argument about how to vocalize the word, nevertheless, was not really that far off the mark, except that no common dictionary will bother with it. Sounds like something you’d say with a mouthful of food. What’s that the earl wanted?
Sounded like samitch!
With or without salt?
The question now becomes, how healthy was this sandwich? Meat? Cheese? Lettuce and tomato, or some other greens. Saltwort – now that’s a green – sort of. Not to be confused with watercress. But it saves the mouth the task of dissolving crystals of salt in the mouth. Not salty at all, according to a Washington Post article – except if you get it out of a (salt?) marsh. I kid you not, I have eaten pizza in Latin America with coarse salt sprinkled on top – not exactly pleasant.
Time now to approach the main theme more directly. Why didn’t I do so at first? The fault lies with a university professor of mine – a department head even. He stereotyped my ethnicity as one that never goes straight to the point. Maybe such a profile was once true. For me, it remains. I will not pretend to be something other than what I am, except when I sum up the parts, I do not know the name, so I can hedge a little. But the essence remains – or will remain. Will that be salt, ash, or earth?
None of that American separation of church and state in Canada’s schools ever existed, at least in my time. The morning started with the National Anthem, the prayer known as the Our Father, and a Biblical reading, followed by announcements – this over the school P.A. system. The only objection to anything I ever noticed was a fellow from the Hispanic Peninsula who did not want to stand up for the anthem on Canada’s equivalent of Memorial Day – Remembrance Day – because it had no meaning for him. A Communist sympathizer until he found out how much money he could earn working for the government in a capitalist society. Or could that be restated, that he then imagined that he was a capitalist because he was working under the state’s rules? Was he worth his salt? [No worry of reprisals, he is deceased – and otherwise, not a bad type.]
Yes, I mention secondary school, precisely because, in this somewhat Church of England affected Canada (Espiscopal Church, in the United States), the thing is the King James Bible. Of course, it is held in great esteem by other Christian faiths – the only question remaining is if it will be the original version, or one of the revisions. Not that the Catholic Bible would differ much. We do not refer to Hebrew Scriptures here, because what we are about to say, is not found there – though salt there is – perhaps too controversially for our modern society.
The laborer is worth his salt, or his meat, or food. The exact text depends on the publisher of the Bible consulted, of which there are dozens. They claim, in their majority, that the Book is the Word of God, but they rake in the profits, probably believing that in doing so, they themselves have becom worth their salt in turn – perhaps throwing a pinch over their shoulder, lest, like Lot’s wife, that value becomes too literal.
Before getting into the meat of our arguments, a couple of asides. That same Canadian secondary school I mentioned, once had as its principal, a man, who among his other credentials, had a Divinity degree, if I remember correctly. He was, in a way, a precursor in the line of an American president, in that he wanted to make our high school great again – the hawk soars, and so were we to do. Apparently, a little moderate proselytizing was seen in order. A type of preacher was called in to a general assembly. To convince us of how little we were basically worth, he suggested probably the 84 cents mentioned here. We’d have to adjust for inflation, but since the world is so efficient now, that appraisal, based on our mineral composition, according to Dr. Anne Marie Helmenstine, the sum of all the minerals is worth only one dollar. If we take the sodium and chlorine, which might be the decompositon of salt, we are only 0.3 % salt, according to her information (adding up the two elements), so based on the value of our salt – on condition that we are referring to table salt, we aren’t worth a penny. She offers the idea of tanning our skin – as a joke – and says that with luck, we might make five bucks. However, we need to deduct the overhead in tanning – which may well be using salt! The information on the weight of our skin varies widely by website, we will use the lower number of 8 pounds, for which we need an equal amount of salt. My brand of choice, at a leading supermarket, comes to almost four dollars, so not counting additional expenses, tanning our skin is really not a way to make money.
A more optimistic view gives a value of one hundred sixty dollars, but how this value is arrived at, is unknown. [https://counterpulse.org/whats-value-human-body/] We are not linking the site, as we are not aware of its reputation.
We could figure on our value in a life-insurance policy, but that value goes to the beneficiary, not to ourselves.
More modern methods of placing a value on our body is to consider the value of selling the organs (better to be dead first!), or to consider the value of all the hormones and such. Extreme values, considered at our “84 cents” link, go into the millions – but are considered the result of “a medical parlor game”.
So, what is this expression, being worth our salt, all about? Maybe this was also explained in one of our spellers. Or was it something learnt in high school Latin class? Roman soldiers used to be paid with salt, and from there, comes our word salary [William Grimshaw, An Etymological Eictionary of the English Language …, [Philadelphia: Grigg, Elliot & Co., 1848] . So I seem to have been taught, but while looking for derivatives of this word, I find (and I restate, translated from Spanish, from the entry “Sal” under “Cultismos” in Joan Corominas, Breve diccionario etimológico de la lengua española, [Madrid: Gredos, 1983], p. 521):, that the salarium was a sum of money given to soldiers so that they could buy salt, and that the world later cam to mean “salary”. If this is true, it may explain an important point which is meant to be the crux of this article.
Perhaps I do not astound the reader with this information, but when one thinks about some common expressions, one realizes how little they are really understood.
Take for example, another expression from the New Testament, that when salt loses its taste, it is thrown away. How many of us who have ever heard this, have ever wondered how salt can possibly lose its taste? Might our labourer have been paid in this insipid currency?
Thinkers have found an answer to the conundrum presented in the preceding paragraph, but let us ignore that. Our question is, what made salt so valuable? Isn’t it common table salt we are talking about?
Well, and I could be mistaken here, but we are talking primarily – when we consider 2000 or more years ago, the so-called Cradle of Civilization – clearly a Eurocentric opinion, as it avoids references to the competing Middle Kingdom, which would rival Rome in size at the same time – two worlds apart, until Marco Polo supposedly found Cathay. Anyway, how much salt are we aware of in Ancient Rome, Assyria, Babylonia, Carthage, Egypt, Greece, and Israel? And is it suitable for human consumption, and commercially exploitable? I ask this, because I know that at least one of the regions mentioned does have some salt – in a most unexpected place.
Even today, Bedouins on their camels make a trek of thousands of miles to the interior of Northern Africa, to obtain slabs of salt to take back to wherever it is that they market these.
Meanwhile, we need to find some sources of salt for the Roman paymasters. Obviously lighter to carry around in a soldier’s kit than heavy metal – or even cheap bronze or brass.
We count 139 headwords beginning with sal, the Latin nominative form for salt, in our 1988 Webster’s New Geographical Dictionary. However, it would be wrong to think that all of these really have any connection to our purpose. Some of these are Semitic roots, the remainder from other Asia, America, and, in their majority, of Indo-European origins. Some of the latter have meanings such as to save; to dance, or to jump; or the idea of health. Would you want to believe that salt is a salve? This may get boring, so you might want to skip this, but it could also be informative, so here goes:
Our preliminary results (we do not want to jump to false conclusions!) give us 33 words which point to salt, either as sal, “salt” (if English), or Salz (German). We have kept apart 7 words which will be verified shortly – this would bring us up to 40 words, and then there may be others. The number 139 should be reduced, because of variant spellings of some names, this brings us down to 133, giving an intial result of 25% minimum (Our final result gave us 40 definite derivatives, not all matching our original guess.)
We compare this with the entries in The New College Latin & English Dictionary (John C. Traupman, Bantam Books, 1966), as we don’t want to spend all day on this. There are 56 headwords beginning with the 3 letters under discussion. Eight of these are definitely related to salt, five to the willow, or woods, eight to leaping or dancing, and broadly speaking, fourteen to health, including the idea of greeting. There seem to be twenty-one others, but if we look at the secondary meaning of the Latin sal, at least four more can be added to the original eight we have identified, giving us 12 of 56, or about 21 %, a number no more than 14 per cent different from our previous 25 %.
The point of looking at our gazetteer was to find the names of places that could have provided the Romans with salt. We see that they could have even managed this during their occupation of Britannia – from Saltcoats, and most successfully in Germany’s Salzburg region, while there had also been a Salarian Way in Italy. Our little Latin dictionary named this, in the language of the Romans, Salaria, and gave the translation into what is supposed to be a translation into English: Via Salaria. Were I to pretend that this translation was really Latin, and then translate it into real English, we get some interesting possibilities, which we will deal with later.
Something is dreadfully wrong with the idea that a soldier was paid in salt, if we think about it. All we need is a smidgen of history to see how this would be corrupting. Of course, it was said that the Roman Empire declined because of its corruption, but on that score, I have seen diverse opinions, suggesting that the common man, and even some of the emperors, were individuals of probity. Let’s analyze this with three arguments.
If the soldier, or any other individual were paid in salt, then salt was a de facto currency, which was to be bartered for one’s real necessities. But in this case, sellers would end up with a tremendous stock of salt, and unless it were possible to get rid of it all for new merchandise, for example, from the curers of meats, vegetable, and leather – something we know nothing about, then this medium of exchange was most useless. It also flies inb the face of what we know about Roman coinage.
If we consider that some missionaries objected to the easy life-style of South Pacific Islanders, who only needed to climb a tree to pluck some bread-fruit for their meals; the objection having been made on the grounds that after the Biblical Fall, man was destined to sweat (and women to perspire, we suppose), these people were scoffing at the Divine mandate, getting around it. How dare they? So likewise, how would it have been just, if someone, without doing any other work, just pinched some salt – which reminds me that a highwayman, in Spanish, is a salteador. But that’s from the root about leaping. Anyway, it looks good in context, at least to me.
Finally, consider the cruel treatment under which gold-mining was done in Africa – and perhaps still is. The worker wouldn’t dare be caught having retained a nugget for himself. Ditto for the diamond mines. As can be seen, who is going to control the workers in the salt mines – that they don’t smuggle out something inside their mouth – if they can stand it? Who will control the guardians of the deposits? How much pilferage must there be, before the “salary” ever gets to the soldier? Sorry, boys, but some of your pay got lost in our seasoning!
But then, as mentioned before, salt was light, as compared to what soldiers had to carry, which was heavy. So, if it were a medium of pay, it would have been good material for gambling. How’s that?
There’s that story about the man who asked for a grain of wheat on the first square of a chess board, double that on the second square, double that on the third, until all sixty-four squares were filled. It would have taken more wheat than the world had. The same would be true for crystals of salt.
Some of the Romans clearly were good gamblers, but their economics was just wrong. At one point, the Roman Empire was auctioned off to the highest bidder. Some of the world’s current billionaires could have bought the world at that price, and it would be necessary to include all future developments on the moon, and Mars, at least. So, maybe they weren’t too greedy – salt is the way to go!
But we have not exhausted our possibilities. The more reference books one has, and the more curiosity one exhibits, the greater the chances for new insights.
We now have to consider the meaning of throwing salt away, when it loses its taste. How does it become insipid?
One point of view on this question is that it was not really a question of taste, but its usefulness in a fire. If I remember correctly, salt can be used to ionize a flame – although what that is good for – in practical terms, is beyond me. Anyway, once it loses this property to correctly adjust the color of the fire, it has lost its “taste”.
Far out, they would have said forty years ago. Less politely, I would confer upon the creator of that idea the Bachelor of Science degree – the initials, in their shorter form, correctly describe his thesis. (And once that is realized in the sense I wish to convey, it becomes patent, that the degree must be revoked!)
Our small dictionary, soon to be supplemented by the definitions of a very serious work, give alternate meanings for salarium, these being, allowance, and meal.
This ties in well with other ideas in the New Testament, specifically those of Paul of Tarsus, the ex-Saul. “Let him who does not work, not eat”, i.e., those that don’t work, are not worth a salary, are not worth any allowance, are not to have a meal!”
And if the meal (with any salt necessary) has lost its taste, it is thrown away – unless we are talking about some serious hunger, of course.
For this interpretation to be valid, we need to know if the Aramaic language used in the expressions about the worker being worth his salt, and insipid salt being thrown away, translate into Latin and back with the same meanings. Furthermore, all of these expressions need to be understood as being mutually intelligible in Latin, Greek, and English (other languages, of course, not being excluded.).
How well can we support our argument?
One of the Greek words translates as brine, and salty taste. A salty taste does not mean the presence of our table salt, so if we use this word, we can clearly understand why the product can be thrown out.
An article on the BBC once pointed out that the Jesus of the Bible was fond of puns. That alone might explain something. One of the translations for sal in the Spes Diccionario ilustrado latino – español español – latino means “witty remarks”. So perhaps the workers are to be allowed to crack a few jokes during the day. “Throw out” the stale jokes! Happily, this matches what we find in a larger Greek dictionary, Florencio I. Sebastián Yarza’s Diccionario griego-español [Barcelona: Ramön Sopena, 1945] Therefore, the “salt” is all some kind of joke, we’re on the right track. This idea also exists in larger English dictionaries.
We might try even one more tack, also found in the New Testament. “Ye are the salt of the earth”. Apparently, not all lexicographers understand this in the same way. One definition suggests something like the common, good guy, another – a chosen elite. How might we tie the expression in with what we already have?
I´m only playing with ideas here, but it becomes clear, that the idea cannot be, that we are a bunch of witty clowns. A dictionary of the Greek language (Diccionario griego – español, [Pabón S. de Urbina, José M., y Echauri Martínez, Eustachio [Barcelona: Spes, 1944]) gave an idea of “insignificant”, not supported in our larger work. Anyway, why would we be so insulted? How about, “we”, whoever it is that is being referred to, “are the currency of the Earth”? Suffering no devaluation over time! An organic gold standard.
For the religiously inclined, we might offer a bit more, suggested by “meal”, a portion of food taken at a certain time. Food need not be literal, it may be used figuratively. This “salt of the earth”, or “meal of the earth” (perhaps, meal, as in oatmeal, and not the reference to our three standard repasts), and this “salt of the earth”, simultaneously nourishes the remainder of the planets inhabitants, as in the injunction given two thousand years ago:
Feed my lambs, feed my sheep.
Now, the bigger the dictionary, the more profound the thought. Here we go with Charles Anthon’s Latin-English and English-Latin Dictionary for the Use of Schools, Part I. Latin-English, [New York: Harper & Row, 1873], where sal is good taste: Thus, “you are the good taste of the Earth”, when the “good taste” is lost, then it is thrown away. Less applicable, but not to be declines, “incentive, stimulus”, as used by Pliny. We confirm this in Lewis and Short’s famous dictionary, where we get good sense, but follows with good taste, elegance “Tectum antiquitus constitutum plus salis quam sumptus habebat – a quote from Nepos (For the House itself being old built, had more of neatness than expense about it – Cornelii Nepotis, Vitæ excellentium imperatorum: cum versione anglica … Or, Cornelius Nepos’s Lives of the Excellent Commanders: with an English translation, as literal as possible, … By Robert Arrol Edinburgh: n.p., 1744. https://books.google.com/books?id=fUAx1wYDLwoC&hl) follows with translations such as stimulus, incentive, and others.
Finally, we go to Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon, 7th edition, [New York: Harper & Brothers, 1883]. From this, we will mention two expressions (2nd entry up from bottom right column): a two word expression: ἅλας συναναλῶσαι, that is “to be bound by ties of hospitality”, which can be compared with a four-word expression, τῶν ἁλῶν συγκατεδηδοκέναι μέδιμνον, “to have eaten a bushel of salt together”, meaning, to be old friends.
Of course, at one time,the situation was so grave, that some Romans thought Christians guilty of cannibalism. And they answered, in their way, why can’t we eat salt together? The Spanish equivalent was pan: bread, instead of salt – a more substantial meal, from whence they get the word compañero – companion, and by extension, our word company. A bit easier to understand than eating something which would raise our blood pressure!
All right, pass the salt!
June 9 – 12, 2018
© Paul Karl Moeller