Quotes Uncovered: Who First Took Things With a Grain of Salt?

Quotes Uncovered

75 ThumbnailHere are more quote authors and origins Shapiro’s tracked down recently.

A while back, I invited readers to submit quotations for which they wanted me to try to trace the origins, using The Yale Book of Quotations and more recent research by me. Hundreds of people have responded via comments or e-mails. I am responding as best I can, a few per week.

Annie asked:

When and why did people start “taking things with a grain of salt?” Why just a grain?

The Mavens’ Word of the Day, an excellent but unfortunately defunct web site formerly sponsored by Random House, has this to say:

With a grain of salt is a translation of Latin cum grano salis. According to The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, the Roman historian Pliny the Elder wrote that General Pompey had discovered an antidote for poison that was to be taken cum grano salis. This was apparently to make it effective. That doesn’t quite explain the current meaning, though.

Other etymologists believe that, at some point centuries later, someone decided that Pliny had been skeptical about either the antidote or its efficacy and took cum grano salis to mean “with a dose of skepticism.” That has been its meaning since its first appearance in English in the 17th century. It seems likely to me that the derivation is something like this: if you’re going to believe that tale, you’d better take it with a grain of salt to make it more palatable (as salt makes food more palatable). I don’t know that we need to go back to the story of Pompey’s antidote for a derivation for the phrase.

thecagedlion asked:

Here’s a quote I first learned from my business statistics prof, then two years later from a different prof in finance: “There are three kinds of lies — lies, damned lies, and statistics.” Both professors credited Benjamin Disraeli. I have since heard someone in the media credit Mark Twain. What say you?

Twain used this in his Autobiography, crediting Benjamin Disraeli for it. In The Yale Book of Quotations, which uses exhaustive research to trace quotation origins, I maintained that Disraeli really was the most likely source. Subsequently, I pushed the earliest known usage of the expression back to 1891. Stephen Goranson, however, then found slightly earlier evidence in 1891 and has argued convincingly against the Disraeli theory. The Wikipedia article on “Lies, damned lies, and statistics” summarizes his researches and his conclusion that the English politician Charles Wentworth Dilke (1843-1911) is the most likely coiner.

Do any readers have any other quotations whose origins they would like me to attempt to trace?

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  1. AC says:

    “A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury with the result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy, always followed by a dictatorship. The average age of the world’s greatest civilizations has been 200 years.”

    Where does this anti-welfare-state quote come from?

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  2. Hunter says:

    I think Pliny had it right. The formula for the antidote was correct, as far as it went, but ultimately incomplete.

    When someone gives me an explanation that apparently fits the facts, but may not be the whole truth, that’s when I reach for my salt shaker.

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  3. Hunter says:

    And with apologies to Sam Clemens, Ben Disraeli, and apparently, Chuck Dilke, I would submit there are actually four kinds of lies. The fourth being “advertising.”

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  4. M.B. says:

    Instead of a grain of salt they say a pinch of salt in England.

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  5. Dan says:

    Where does the phrase “the whole 9 yards” come from?

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  6. Andrew says:

    How about…

    “You can fool some people some times, but you can’t fool all the people all the time”

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  7. RabbiSJC says:

    My daughter would like to know where the expression, “growing like a weed,” comes from.
    She is studying the last chapter from Isaiah as her bat mitzvah haftarah (for when Shabbat –the Sabbath — falls on Rosh Hodesh — the New Moon) and in verse 66:14, it reads, “Your limbs shall flourish like grass.”

    Since she herself has been growing rapidly lately, she immediately connected this verse and the expression, wondering the one inspired the other. Any thoughts? (Her bat mitzvah is in June; any answer before that could lead to a mention at our synagogue!)


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  8. Eric says:


    Has some suggestions and links for further reading.

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