Below The Salt

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Below The Salt : Phrases


Common or lowly


This is just one of the many English phrases that refer to salt, for example, 'worth his salt', 'with a grain of salt', 'the salt of the earth', etc. This is an indication of the long-standing importance given to salt in society.

In mediaeval England salt was expensive and only affordable by the higher ranks of society. Its value rested on its scarcity. Salt was less easily obtainable in northern Europe than in countries with warmer climates, where it could be obtained more cheaply by the evaporation of seawater. This value is the source of the high symbolic status given to salt in the day-to-day language that originated from England at that period.

At that time the nobility sat at the 'high table' and their commoner servants at lower trestle tables. Salt was placed in the centre of the high table. Only those of rank had access to it. Those less favoured on the lower tables were below (or beneath) the salt.

The term salt is used for the container the salt was kept in, as well as the condiment itself. The ornate and expensive nature of these salts was a reflection of the importance that salt was accorded.

As early as 1434 the word salt was used in this way, e.g. "A feir salt saler of peautre." (A fine-quality pewter salt cellar). Strictly speaking to be 'below the salt' was to be below the salt cellar.

The phrase was in use by the late 16th century, as this quotation from Ben Jonson's Cynthia's Revels, 1599 shows:

"His fashion is not to take knowledg of him that is beneath him in Cloaths. He never drinks below the salt."

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