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Old 22 October 2007, 10:50 PM
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Ponder Worth his salt

Comment: I heard that in the old, old, old days in Greece, slaves were traded for
salt and a good slave was "worth his salt". Is this true?
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Old 23 October 2007, 01:11 AM
Insensible Crier Insensible Crier is offline
 
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In Roman society, salt was used as currency, and soldiers were paid in salt. The Latin word sal is the root for the English word salary. Based on this, we have the familiar phrase that a person is "worth their salt", meaning worth the wages they receive.
So it seems to not just apply to slaves.
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Old 23 October 2007, 01:21 AM
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'Worth his salt' is certainly Roman, a soldier worth his pay, i'll tug up a cite for that somewhere but i'm pretty certain - that or too much HBO
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Old 23 October 2007, 02:34 AM
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This message board post on "The Phrase Finder" seems to indicate that the first recorded usage of the phrase was in 1830 and not linked to the Roman salarium because people in the 19th century were not familiar with the practice. But can we believe in the authority of anybody on a mere message board?

But The History of Salt reiterates the salt for slaves story.

I guess "dunno" is the right answer.

Morning
salty dog
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Old 23 October 2007, 03:35 AM
mommyrex
 
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D'oh!

:o I realize this is totally wrong. Wrong and stupid. But I have to share anyway, because it us so weird. I always (until this thread) kind of assumed this phrase in the negative ("not worth his salt") meant that someone wasn't worth as much as the salt he makes - like through perspiration. I realize now that as a positive assertion, this isn't much of a testament to someone's worth. I just thought I understood it and never wondered if it made any sense. And now I'm :o :o :o

I know. I'm not even worth this salty fish:
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Old 23 October 2007, 05:15 AM
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I can't believe the Greek slave trade story. The phrase isn't that old in English and I don't think it's likely to have come from another language. Etymonline dates it to 1830. Salt was always considered an expensive commodity (until it could be produced in large quantities) and was linked to payment through the well-known history of the word "salary" (as noted in IC's post). Even up to the early 19th century, salt was used as a form of payment and trade when other commodities weren't available. (Sometimes payment was even in salt brine.) The idea that this phrase hung around from ancient slave trade, and then suddenly migrated to English sometime before 1830, seems very far-fetched.
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Old 23 October 2007, 03:23 PM
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If it popped up in English in 1830, is it possible we absorbed it from far flung piece of the Empire? Were there societies in India that still held salt in very high regard? I imagine getting a supply of salt would be much harder for northern Indians than for a European at the time.
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Old 23 October 2007, 03:56 PM
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Originally Posted by Squirt View Post
If it popped up in English in 1830, is it possible we absorbed it from far flung piece of the Empire? Were there societies in India that still held salt in very high regard? I imagine getting a supply of salt would be much harder for northern Indians than for a European at the time.
Salt was still very valuable in Europe and the Americas at the time. The processes for purifying salt from brine were just starting to be perfected at the time and salt played a major role in every major war and revolution up to the mid-19th century. (It's true that this lasted very late in India. Salt taxation played a large role in Gandhi's revolution, a century later.) Even after its production price had dropped, it was heavily controlled and taxed in almost every country, including Europe, China, India, Japan, much of the Americas... I don't think it's any stretch to assume that it simply meant salary because, unlike today, the connection between the word salary and salt would have been obvious, even without explicit references to antiquity. (For example, there's "salt of the Earth".)

Last edited by ganzfeld; 23 October 2007 at 04:05 PM.
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