The Macabre Origin Of The Phrase 'Take It With A Grain Of Salt'

One component of the English language that can make it especially hard to learn is the sheer amount of idioms native speakers use in daily conversation. Whether one is avoiding the topic by "beating around the bush" or telling someone to "break a leg" before a big performance, once you stop and think about these phrases, it becomes easy to see how confusing they actually are. Consider all the food-based idioms people use like "red herring," "go bananas," or "bring home the bacon." These figures of speech may sound strange when taken literally, but their meanings become clear once their origins are revealed. For example, the history of the phrase "take it with a grain of salt" clears up the saying, but it also makes it a lot more dark.

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According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, to take something with a grain of salt means to consider information with a "skeptical attitude," and to not blindly trust information that may be from a bad source. This is a bit counterintuitive, since even sweet food tastes better with a dash of salt. Most sources agree the phrase was first penned by Pliny the Elder in 77 C.E. In Pliny's text "The Natural History," the Roman author mentions that a grain of salt is the final ingredient in an antidote for poison. It turns out salt is good for more than just fixing rubbery eggs!

Salt was thought to be an antidote for poison

To complicate matters a bit further, Pliny didn't originate this idea. Rather, he was detailing the aftermath of the third Mithridatic War, a conflict in which Rome conquered the Persian Kingdom of Pontus. After Rome defeated Mithridates, the ruler of Pontus, the Roman general Pompey searched through the fallen enemy's things. In Mithridates' possessions, Pompey found an antidote that read, via Mental Floss, "Take two dried walnuts, two figs, and 20 leaves of rue; pound them all together, with the addition of a grain of salt." The concoction was said to protect the drinker from poisoning.

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There is another story about the origin of the idiom that also has to do with poison. The tale goes that another Roman general (not Pompey) once consumed small bits of poison so that they wouldn't have any effect on him. To give the poison some flavor, he added a grain of salt to each one. This version of events is not widely accepted due to a lack of evidence, and when you think about the modern meaning of the phrase, it actually doesn't make a lot of sense. After all, a grain of salt is the antidote, not a coverup, of poison and misinformation. Regardless, just make sure to pick the best salt possible.

The modern meaning

Flash forward to the 17th century, where we see the first (somewhat) modern example of the phrase, "take with a grain of salt." In his text "Commentary on the Old and New Testaments," John Trapp wrote, "this is to be taken with a grain of salt." There has been some debate on Trapp's exact meaning, but scholars guess that his implication was close to the modern meaning of not taking something for face value. A few hundred years later in 1908, American literary journal The Athenaeum used the phrase to explain why the publication wouldn't accept less-than-credible photographs of early Ireland. Across the pond in the U.K., historian F.R. Cowell first used the phrase "pinch of salt" in his 1948 book, "Cicero & the Roman Republic." It seems that when it comes to grains of salt, all roads do indeed lead to Rome.

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Today, we mainly use the phrase "take with a grain of salt" to express how you shouldn't give too much credit to an idea that comes from an untrustworthy source. That source can be anything from a shady news site to the neighborhood gossip, or even one's own inner saboteur. And while a grain of salt may not actually protect your body from poison, a healthy dose of skepticism is a great tool for anyone trying to parse through all the information in our modern world.

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