Remember The Salt

Ever wonder the origin of the phrase “take it with a grain of salt?” I recently did a bit of research (meaning I Googled it), and here’s what I found out…

It originated in the first century with Pliney the Elder. Pliney led an amazing life, and he had a real knack for writing.* He wrote a great deal about philosophy and natural history. One of the subjects he wrote about was poison, for it seems that back in Ole’ Pliny’s day, a good deal of one’s energy was devoted to avoiding death by poison. Maybe it was poison slipped to you via some enemy, or maybe it was poison delivered via some piece of undercooked meat. Either way, dealing with poison must have been a fairly regular occurrence because Pliney had his own tried and true concoction to protect against this. He wrote:

Take two dried walnuts, two figs, and twenty leaves of rue; pound them all together, with the addition of a grain of salt; if a person takes this mixture fasting, he will be proof against all poisons for that day.

If I’m understanding this correctly, according to Pliney, if we grind the recommended nuts, figs and leaves together and take them on an empty stomach along with that magic grain of salt, we’ll be safe. Maybe it’s because it was the final ingredient, or maybe it’s because it seems so bizarrely precise that a single grain of anything could have an impact, but it’s the grain of salt we reference when we want a metaphor for protecting ourselves from any sentiment that could damage us, intentionally or not. It’s a fair warning, passed on to us through centuries of collective human wisdom, that what we say to each other can do just as much damage as poison, and that we might want to inoculate ourselves. It’s a reminder to take stock and make sure our priorities are straight and our convictions are internalized before considering another’s opinion. It’s quite likely the advice isn’t meant to do harm, but just because someone’s not an enemy doesn’t mean their sentiments aren’t careless or simply “undercooked.”
I don’t plan to go through life with a closed mind, and I’m not going to stop wearing my heart on my sleeve, but I do think I’ll work on keeping a grain of salt on my empty stomach. I hope you will, too.

Photo by Josh Stewart and Jessi Arrington of WORKSHOP. Salt shaker borrowed from reBar.

* Pliney the Elder’s nephew (you guessed it, Pliney the Younger) wrote of his uncle, “For my part I deem those blessed to whom, by favour of the gods, it has been granted either to do what is worth writing of, or to write what is worth reading; above measure blessed those on whom both gifts have been conferred. In the latter number will be my uncle.” What a beautiful and true sentiment.


  1. Heidi

    Hey Jessi, Love the blog. Loved the TED Speech. I am half a year into my own sustainable fashion project, where I am trying to apply a formula to my closet to and try to be creative with what I have in order to raise funds for charity for an entire year. The formula draws in part from vintage and in part on reusing what you have. Your constant cycling of clothes speaks to one half of my clothing behavior. Before I started my project, I have considered the 100 piece option as well and I think that’s what I’ll do next year. Anyway, the project is at its midpoint, and I am in a deep creative slump and this is my cry for help. How do you feel about an hour of vintage shopping in Brooklyn together? I could do with the infusion of color, I’d love to meet you, talk color and sustainable fashion and have a featurette about you styling me on the site. It’d be an honor.

  2. elswarnenath

    Great article, I just given this onto a co-worker who was doing a little research on that. And he in fact purchased me lunch because I discovered it for him :) .. So let me reword that: Thanks for the treat! But yeah Thankx for taking the time to talk abo

  3. Elizabeth Kenney

    Did you know…that a ‘grain’ is a actual unit of measurement?  (in other words, it’s a bunch of something rather than one little crystal of salt)  Grains are commonly used today to measure medicine, among other things like gunpowder and bullets.  It’s thought that a ‘grain’ used to refer to the weight of one grain of wheat.  Today it is also known as a ‘troy grain’ and and is equal to 64.79891 mg.  1 gram is = to approximately 15.4323584 grains.  A regular tablet of aspirin is 325 mg and is referred to as a ‘5 grain’ aspirin.

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