Monday 29 March 2010


If a word begins with the letters al, there's a damned fine chance that its origin is ultimately Arabic. Albatross, alchemy, alcohol, alcove, algebra, Algeria, algorithm, alkali and Al Qaeda all start with the Arabic word al meaning the. Even the Koran used to be called the Alcoran in English and almonds acquired their l through a bewildered Spanish belief that the Al must be there somehwere.

Similarly words beginning sal are as likely as not connected to salt.

For example, lettuce and the like need dressing and that dressing will probably contain oil and salt and so it becomes a salad, or herba salata in the original Latin. Salt is also used in making sauces which derives straight from salsa and those salsa sauces can be put on salami and salamagundi.

People need salt. I remember the government running a big public health campaign telling everybody to cut down on their salt intake. As the campaign reached its height with talk of a salt tax and other such insanities I was busily ghost-writing the memoirs of a soldier who had got stuck in the jungle in Vietnam without any salt.

If you have no salt at all, you get muscle cramps and then you die in agony. This process is sped up if you sweat, which unfortunately seems to happen rather a lot in the Vietnamese jungle.

Anyway, people need salt. Soldiers need salt. Soldiers used to get an allowance to spend on salt called a salarium from which we get the word salary. Pliny the Elder, who was a bit of nutjob, claimed that soldiers were originally paid in salt. Others that they were paid to guard the salt roads or via salarium. Others go even further and say that the word soldier itself derives from sal dare, to give salt. This latter theory is hard to swallow unless taken with a pinch of salt.

That is not the reason that soldiers are often the salt of the earth. Indeed Roman soldiers used to kill the salt of the earth who were early Christians, persecuted by salaried soldiers for the sake of righteousness. As Jesus said whilst sermonising upon the mount:

Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted? it is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men.

It's strange that the phrase originally meant the tiny thing (the early church) that made the world palatable to God, but now means the common majority. The important thing is that government campaigns against salty foods are almost certainly blasphemous; or as St Paul put it:

Let your speech be alway with grace, seasoned with salt, that ye may know how ye ought to answer every man.

And I think we have demonstrated that it is. The word salaam, though, has nothing to do with salt. It's Arabic.


  1. Great post. Love the way you link all this stuff together.

  2. Most interesting!! I enjoy the connections too, and the way you write about them.

  3. yeeees, but excess salt is still bad for you.