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.
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.
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?