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.
The question posed in the title of this week’s column might seem like an odd one to many readers. A majority of regular salad eaters do so for health reasons, to get the roughage, vitamins, and minerals they need to stay hale and hearty. The idea of adding salt is counterintuitive to that goal — how often do you hear doctors saying people need to add more sodium to their diet?
But, now that I’ve brought it up, you’re probably also noticing that salad and salt start with the same three letters. That’s no coincidence.
A popular dish in Rome was called herba salata. Herba referred to non-woody grasses, herbs, and weeds; when talking about food, herba is “vegetables.” Salata means “salted,” from the noun sal “salt.” Herba salata, literally “salted vegetables,” was raw vegetables prepared in a salty brine, an early version of salad dressing.
Herba salata, a very general recipe, was easy to make, so the concept stuck around as the Romans spread their language and culture (and death and oppression) northward. By the time the word found its way into Old French in the 1300s, it had been abbreviated simply to salade, which is how the word first appears in English texts at the end of the same century.
At that time, the base of a salad was still raw vegetables (though not necessarily lettuce). But later “salad” recipes extended the concept to include chopped meats, cooked vegetables and herbs, and other ingredients so that, though the word salad by itself still signifies a raw vegetable dish, salad has become a more generic term for pretty much any agglomeration of prepared ingredients — chicken salad, egg salad, pasta salad, fruit salad. Today, you can even mix pineapples, cherries, gelatin, and Coca-Cola — not a vegetable in sight, and with very low sodium — and no one will bat an eye when you call it a salad.
Salad isn’t the only thing that started with sodium. You salary comes from salt, too.
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