Words and Reason: Eating Our Words

by Cynthia Clampitt

Cynthia Clampitt
Cynthia Clampitt

The importance of food is in many ways reflected in our language. In fact, food permeates our conversation in ways we don’t usually contemplate.

Salt is a good example. We speak of people not worth their salt, take things with a grain of salt, or say someone is the salt of the earth. We may not be thinking of food when we say these things, but we at least recognize the word salt. What about your salary? The word salary is anchored in the Latin salarium, which was the salt ration given to Roman soldiers. It comes from salis, which means “salt.” Actually, salad is related, being anchored in the Latin for “salted vegetables.”

Many of these phrases and words reflect the value that salt has had, both historically and still in some countries today. Salt is life in hot, dry lands. It has been money during much of history. Both “worth their salt” and “salt of the earth” reflect this idea of value. Taking things with a grain of salt comes from the Roman believe that salt was an antidote to poison.

Salt is not the only consumable used as currency. If you are discussing things pecuniary, you may think you’re speaking of money, but it is anchored in a time when cattle were a primary way of calculating wealth. Pecus was the Latin word for cattle.

Swine have given us a wide range of phrases, names, and words, both directly and indirectly. One can eat like a pig, bring home the bacon, or live high on the hog. (While the first two may be obvious, “high on the hog” refers to where the most tender and costly cuts of meat are found.)

Less obvious is Wall Street—but then, that’s one of the indirect connections. In the 1600s, semi-wild pigs (pigs introduced to the New World by colonists, but then allowed to run free) were wreaking havoc in the grain fields and gardens of colonial New York. So a long wall was built on the northern edge of the colony on Manhattan Island, to control the roaming herds. The road that ran along the inside of the wall became, of course, Wall Street.

One food that became part of the language, but later fell out of use, helps explain a popular American song: macaroni. In the 1700s, a group of well-traveled young Englishmen became known as macaronis. These young men were very impressed with themselves, adopting French and Italian styles, eating exotic foods they discovered on the continent, such as macaroni, a dish with which they were sufficiently delighted to think it would be a good name for their club. These men were not merely travelers; they were fops—over-dressed and self-impressed. However, they were still admired by some as being terribly fashionable. Therefore, when the British wished to mock the more rough-hewn American colonials, they sang of a rustic dandy who stuck a feather in his cap and thought that made him one of the macaronis. While the song was originally derisive, the Americans adopted it and sang it until the British couldn’t stand it any more.

BIO: Contributor Cynthia Clampitt is a freelance writer, food historian, and traveler. She loves history, geography, culture, literature, and language—and the place where all of these intersect. She is the author of the award-winning travel narrative, Waltzing Australia, and keeps two blogs, http://www.theworldsfare.org and http://www.waltzingaustralia.com.