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Salty Language

The following article was originally published in The Mundling Stick, the Newsletter of The Lion Salt Works Trust.

Our language is full of references to salt, both literal and figurative. But not all the salt-related words in our language are linked to common salt, sodium chloride.

Some, such as salt of tartar (potassium carbonate), refer to the compound formed from the union of an acid and a base. Epsom Salts, for example, is the common name for magnesium sulphate, once widely used, but of debatable medical value. The effectiveness of smelling salts (ammonium carbonate) has been demonstrated, whether in reviving Victorian ladies shocked by a salty tale (see below), or 1950s footballers flattened by a heavy wet football.

Other salt-related words may have obscure meanings. A salt-box is of course a box to keep salt in, usually with a sloping hinged top; but in the US it has also come to mean a frame house, having two storeys at the front and one at the back.

A saltcat is a mixture of salt, gravel, old mortar or lime, cumin seed and stale urine, used to attract pigeons and keep them at home. (Surely a pretty female would be a greater lure?)

Salt horse was the name given by sailors to the salted beef which formed much of their diet; but also to a naval officer with general duties.

Collecting salt money was a tradition at Eton College, when students stood on a montem, a mound on the Bath Road, to collect money for the Captain of the School’s expenses. In the early days, salt was scattered on the collectors, but later, pinches of salt were sold to the public.

Salt of lemon, also known as salt of sorrel (potassium hydrogen oxalate) is used to remove stains and mould from linen.

The salt bush is one of the orache family, tolerant of saline soil, and whose leaves contain salt.

Salt rheum is an American name for eczema; it may be treated by salt-rheum weed, chelone glabra, from the figwort family Scrophulariaceae.

Alchemists used the salt of wisdom, sal alembroth, a mixture of ammonium chloride and mercuric chloride, in their fruitless search for gold.

Many people have had cause to be grateful for Glauber’s salt, sal mirabilis. It is a very effective laxative.

The presence of the Latin root sal in words for food indicates the importance of salt in their preparation: salsa, salami, salad, sauce…..perhaps also salmagundi!

Salty tales are rather rude. A female animal in heat is said to have salt; but this sense of the word  is not from the Latin word sal. It is from the root saltare, to jump. No further explanation needed. There does seem to be some confusion here.  The word “salacious” comes from the Latin root sal, and there is a link between salt and fertility. A French engraving of 1157 shows “Women salting their husbands,” sprinkling salt on strategic areas to increase their virility. The effectiveness of this has not been recorded, nor, as far as is known, been subject to scientific investigation – so must be taken with, er, a pinch of salt.

Peter Solan, The Lion Salt Works Trust

Peter Solan is a member of The Lion Salt Works Trust. The Lion Salt Works Trust was originally formed to protect, restore and promote the salts works as the gateway to Cheshire's world changing salt heritage. The Trust continue this role with the museum by working to establish a salt making presence on the site. Anybody interested in getting involved with the Trust’s work please email them via ngkhunt12 (a) gmail . com