Grain of Salt


(With) a grain of salt is a literal translation of a Latin phrase, ‘(cum) grano salis.’ It is often used to show that intelligence and personal judgment are needed, as in ‘I drink wine cum grano salis since I must drive’ (with care, moderately) or ‘please, repair this electric cable cum grano salis’ (aware of the dangers). ‘Cum grano salis’ also means, like in modern English, that something should not be taken too literally. In Italy ‘to have salt on your pumpkin’ (pumpkin being your head) means to have intelligence and reasoning capabilities.

The phrase comes from Pliny the Elder’s ‘Naturalis Historia,’ regarding the discovery of a recipe for an antidote to a poison. In the antidote, one of the ingredients was a grain of salt. Threats involving the poison were thus to be taken ‘with a grain of salt’ and therefore less seriously. An alternative account says that the Roman general Pompey believed he could make himself immune to poison by ingesting small amounts of various poisons, and he took this treatment with a grain of salt to help him swallow the poison. In this version, the salt is not the antidote, it was taken merely to assist in swallowing the poison.

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