Hey! This Language Tastes a Bit Salty!'

Hey! This Language  Tastes a Bit Salty!'

So if a slave didn’t turn out to be as efficient as the buyer hoped, he was thought to be a ‘waste of salt’ and hence the term. Roman soldiers were paid wages in salt—a ‘salarium’ and that is the origin of the word, ‘salary’!

‘Rubbing salt in his wounds’ today refers to adding injury to insult or, hurting somebody who is already hurt. But in the old days, salt played a very important role in medicine. It was actually used to heal wounds. Since salt is a drying agent, it helped keep the outside of the open wound dry and bacteria free. And this helped quicker healing. Of course, it must have hurt!

‘Under the salt’ is an expression steeped in old-fashioned snobbery. Since salt was scarce, it was a dish that was showed off at the dining tables of the wealthy, in fancy containers placed at the centre of long tables. Those who sat ‘above the salt’, i.e, between the salt container and the head of the family, were considered the more important of the guests. The ‘not-so-important’ folk sat ‘under the salt’ and so the phrase came to mean someone of not great importance or from ‘non-upper-class-backgrounds’.

I always start thinking about salt when Gandhiji’s birthday approaches. Because he used salt to break an empire! In March 12, 1930, Gandhi and 70 supporters began the 80 day walk from Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad, to Dandi on the Gujarat coast. There, right beside the Dharasana Salt Works, controlled by the British, the Dandi marchers made their own salt, triggering off a wave of ‘illegal’, tax-free salt production. 60,000 people courted arrest, choking British prisons in India and capturing the imagination of an entire nation – what a simple, non-violent way to set the Empire crumbling! As Pythagoras said, “Salt is born of the purest of parents; the sun and the sea.” So Gandhi had chosen to challenge the British with a product that needed no help from machinery!

Salt. The Flavour of History

Salt features in Chinese historical records that date back to over 4000 years BC. The earliest known record of taxing salt, is of Emperor Hsia Yu slapping a salt tax on his subjects in 2200 BC. Centuries later, when Marco Polo travelled the East in Kublai Khan’s time, in Tibet he reported seeing cakes of salt, imprinted with the Khan’s image and used as cash!

In the days before refrigeration, salt was so valuable because it was a preservative. Salted meat could be stored through the winter. Crops grown in summer could be pickled in brine (a concentrated salt solution). Beside food, salt was used extensively in setting dyes in the textile industry, in leather tanning, in the paper and pulp industry, and today, is even sprinkled on treacherous, ice-covered roads, to prevent skidding.

Salt as a weapon of war!

Did you know that centuries before Christ, the Assyrians used salt the way present day armies use land mines? The best way to destroy an enemy was to destroy his source of food, so all the agricultural land around a city would be ‘salted’ so nothing would grow in it. In medieval Spain and Portugal, traitors were first beheaded, their houses smashed and then their lands salted…thus virtually destroying the entire family. Even as recently as the 2nd World War, the Russian Red Army salted the earth so that Hitler’s advancing army would have no access to food.  

It was salt that was the ‘fuel’ for the aggressive Vikings. Once they discovered that salted fish could be stored for months, they stocked up on months’ supplies of salted cod, and could be out at sea, exploring wider and wider reaches of the Atlantic. They discovered Greenland, conquered large tracts of England, travelled as far south from Norway as France and exported their salted fish all over Europe.
So the next time you add ‘a pinch of salt’ to a boring story, or to a curry that tasted a little bland, think about how humanity has been doing just that simple act for over 6000 years!  

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