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Where did this ubiquitous phrase come from? Usually it is used in conjunction with either disputable of downright dubious information but I can't think of how salt helps the situation. The only thing I can think of is that since salt had a higher value in ancient times, that maybe the speaker is trying to almost bribe the recipient ("here is some info and here's some salt for your trouble") but I am just theorizing, take it with a grain of salt.

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It reminds me of the Latin cum grano salis. –  kiamlaluno Apr 20 '11 at 15:50
    
@Kiamlaluno, wow, even with my poor Latin I can see the resemblance. In what context is that used? –  Bob Roberts Apr 20 '11 at 15:51
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@kiamlaluno, Indeed it's from Pliny. Good intuition ! –  Alain Pannetier Φ Apr 20 '11 at 15:52
    
I've always experienced it as a "pinch of salt"..? –  billynomates Apr 20 '11 at 15:54

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up vote 9 down vote accepted

The phrase is likely derived from the Latin cum grano salis, which in turn was used by Pliny the Elder in his work Naturalis historia:

After the defeat of that mighty monarch, Mithridates, Cneius Pompeius found in his private cabinet a recipe for an antidote in his own hand- writing ; it was to the following effect: Take two dried walnuts, two figs, and twenty leaves of rue ; pound them all together, with the addition of a grain of salt; if a person takes this mixture fasting, he will be proof against all poisons for that day.

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It's apparently from one of Pliny's books - the recipes for antidote to poison began with "a pinch of salt" so you have some bad news (which is poison) but you take it with the antidote (a pinch of salt)

The motto of the USA came from his salad dressing recipe - so anything is possible!

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Thanks - wikipedia seems to be down (or at least their search is) –  mgb Apr 20 '11 at 16:12

It comes from the Italian avere sale in zucca, which literally means "to have salt in [your] pumpkin," where pumpkin is figuratively used to mean head; using zucca ("pumpkin") to mean testa ("head") is also used in the phrase essere una zucca vuota ("to be an empty pumpkin").

In avere sale in zucca, sale ("salt") is used to mean "to have a little of intelligence," and with a grain of salt (in Latin, cum grano salis) refers to using intelligence to judge something.

Etymonline reports that "to take something with a grain of salt" is from 1640s, from Modern Latin cum grano salis. Wikipedia reports what I reported in this answer, and which is what my teacher of Italian literature taught us when I was frequenting our scuole superiori.

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And your evidence for a connection between the Italian and the English expressions? –  Colin Fine Apr 20 '11 at 16:53

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