Oct
11

What does “with a grain of salt” even mean?

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grains of salt

At some point we’ve all been told to take some bit of information “with a grain of salt,” usually by Aunt Janine when the info is coming from Uncle Jack after one too many cold ones. We generally take the phrase to mean accepting a statement, but holding a degree of skepticism about its truth—but where did the phrase come from?

Naturalis Historia

Naturalis Historia by Pliny the Elder

In an ancient text entitled Naturalis Historia, Roman author Pliny the Elder writes of the discovery of a poison antidote that includes a grain of salt as an ingredient. The grain of salt was meant to be the element that would help the less-than-savory-sounding recipe go down, thus ensuring protection against the poison.

This being pumpkin season, we can’t help but also mention the related Italian phrase “avere sale in zucca.” This means “to have salt in your pumpkin,” (with pumpkin loosely translating to “head”) or to have intelligence, making “grain of salt” a reference to a small bit of intelligence. With a grain of salt is also a literal translation of the Latin phrase cum grano salis, which is often used with a statement that should be taken moderately, with care, or not too literally.

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