Acting “cum grano salis” or “having salt in your head”: why do we associate salt with intelligence?

Expressions such as “to have salt in one's head” and “cum grano salis” derive from not only economic value, but also symbolic and cultural that salt had in ancient civilizations. In the past, in fact, salt was essential for health food preservation and for other functions. As a result it was considered a valuable asset, to the point that in some cases it was used as a payment system. Even the expressions in which salt is the “protagonist” are ancient: both date back to Roman civilization. Originally the two expressions they were not related to intelligence, but they had other meanings. Having salt stored in a gourd, for example, meant you were rich.

The cultural and religious value of salt

In the past, salt was a very precious food and was used not only to flavor foods, but also for many other functions. In particular, it was used as medicinal and for the food preservation (a use that still remains today in some preparations: dried and salted cod, salted capers, etc.), according to a system experimented since the Neolithic. Thanks to its importance in daily life, it was sometimes even used as money: Roman soldiers were on some occasions paid in salt (this is where the word “salary” and phrases like “salty bill” come from).

It is not surprising, therefore, that salt was important not only economically, but also as on the cultural one.

In numerous religions of the past they existed rites of which salt was the protagonist: the cults of ancient Egypt, in which it also served for mummification; Greco-Roman paganism, the religions of pre-Columbian America.

Likewise, salt had (and still has today) great importance in Judeo-Christian culture: in the Bible it is mentioned 35 times; in the Gospel of Mark he is mentioned in the famous Sermon on the Mount by Jesus, who, addressing the apostles, states: «You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt becomes tasteless, how should it be salted?”

Idiomatic expressions about salt

The association between salt and intelligence is present in two expressions: one usually cited in Latin, cum grano salis; one in Italian, to have salt in your head. Both expressions originate in the civilization of ancient Rome.

Cum grano salis

Cum grano salis literally means “with a grain of salt” and is used in the phrase “act with a grain of salt”, with the meaning of behaving with prudence and prudence.

The expression almost certainly derives from a passage of Pliny the Elderthan in his Naturalis Historiaspeaking of a medicine he observed that it had to be ingested with a grain of salt (the exact expression “I add salis grain”, i.e. after adding a grain of salt). From this hint the phrase passed into modern languages, or in the modified Latin version (cum grano salis), or in translation, as generally happens in English (take with a grain of salt).

Ancient edition of the Naturalis Historiae

Have salt in your pumpkin

Even the expression having salt in one's head was born in the time of ancient Rome. However, it originally did not mean being intelligent, but be rich. In Roman civilization, in fact, it was common to store salt in a gourd hollowed out as a container and, since it was a precious commodity, having salt in a gourd meant being wealthy. Over the years the expression has changed meaning because the word “pumpkin” has become a colloquial synonym for “head”. Having salt in one's head, therefore, has taken on the meaning of being intelligent.

Aramengo possible origin expression go to ramengo