Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.
As a Roman soldier, when you’re pushing through foreign lands on your leaders’ quest to conquer the Western world, the coin of the land isn’t going to be very useful. There’s simply nowhere to spend Roman coins in ancient Gaul or Germania. Recognizing this dilemma, Roman leaders paid their soldiers with something more useful: salt.
Some resources say that Roman soldiers were given an allowance for the purchase of salt, and others say they were paid directly in salt. (It’s possible both were true at different times and in different places.) Why salt? It wasn’t because the foods of conquered lands were overly bland, but because salt is a preservative. Having salt available meant that soldiers didn’t have to hunt for a fresh meal every day: The meat from one catch, properly preserved, could last for a week or more without spoiling.
The Latin word for salt is sal, and soldiers’ “salt money” was called salarium — a word that continued to refer to soldiers’ remuneration even after more conventional means of payment were contrived. This concept of compensation for work entered Old French as salaire and then passed from French into English in the late 13th century as salarie — or, in modern English, salary.
Salt was a valuable commodity around the world — more valuable than gold to some, because having salt to preserve food meant that you could eat year-round. That’s why spilling salt became such a bad omen. It’s also how the idiom “the salt of the earth” came to describe a good and honest person when, from a literal standpoint, salting the earth is a bad thing: Over-salinization of soil can destroy crops and ruin cropland. (Salinization and saline also find their roots in the Latin sal.)
And if you’ve ever said that someone isn’t “worth his salt,” well that goes back to those Roman troops dashing through Europe: It refers to a soldier who isn’t doing enough to earn his salarium.
Featured image: Shutterstock
Become a Saturday Evening Post member and enjoy unlimited access. Subscribe now