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I came across the phrase, ‘cum grano salis’ in the article written by Chris Cillizza, a political pundit in the August 8th Washington Post’s article under the title ‘GOP smells blood in Presidential race.’ The article deals with the results of latest polls that show significant erosion of the President Obama’s support basis after the downgrading of American credit by S & P’s last Friday.

The phrase in question appears in the following lines:

“Polls are, of course a snapshot in time and are rightly taken cum grano salis. But, it’s not hard to read between the data points on this particular survey.”

As I am totally unfamiliar with the phrase, “take something cum grano salis,” I checked online dictionaries. Both Free Merriam-Webster and Oxford Dictionaries had an entry of 'cum grano salis' as a phrase of Latin origin meaning ‘take something with a grain (pinch) of salt.’

I wonder how popular this phrase is among native speakers. Is it just a liking or style of the author to have used deliberately a ‘big word’ like ‘cum grano salis’ instead of simply saying ‘with a grain of salt’ that can be understood by everybody? If I use “take something cum grano salis ” mimicking the author - like 'You'd better to take Taro's story cum grano salis, in day-to-day conversation among chums, am I taken for granted, or ridiculed?

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It's "salis", even in the article. Not "salisi". –  simchona Aug 11 '11 at 6:30
Related: "Take this question with a grain of salt". –  Alain Pannetier Φ Aug 11 '11 at 7:44
@simchona. Thank you for your corrections and NGram chart to the point. –  Yoichi Oishi Aug 11 '11 at 8:55
I don't know any Latin to speak of but if I heard this in casual conversation it'd give me pause for a moment, then I'd figure out pretty quickly that "cum grano salis" would be "with a grain of salt" (like I did in the time between reading the title and body of your question) and give props to the speaker for the clever usage. There are surely many people that wouldn't get it, but I'm looking forward to using it on the right audience. –  Travis Bemrose Jul 3 at 2:06

3 Answers 3

Cum grano salis is the Latin version of the phrase "take it with a grain of salt". This phrase means:

(With) a grain of salt, in modern English, is an idiom which means to view something with skepticism, or to not take it literally.

There is an interesting explanation to it, which says:

Since in Italy "to have salt in your pumpkin" (avere sale in zucca - pumpkin is a humorous way to say "head") means to have intelligence and reasoning capabilities, "grain of salt" often means "a little bit of intelligence". So, "cum grano salis", in its Latin form, it is often used when it is needed to show that intelligence and personal judgment are needed, as in "I drink wine cum grano salis since I must drive" (with care, moderately) or "please, repair this electric cable cum grano salis" (not scanting, thinking to the consequences or dangers of repairing your electric cable).

The phrase "take it with a grain of salt" is a rather common idiom in English. According to this Google NGram, the Latin form was originally more popular but around 1900 the trend switched to favor the English.

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Nowadays, I had never heard the Latin phrase until you posted it. The English version seems to have mostly taken over. I think that using the Latin in conversation would lead people to believe that you were deliberately trying to seem learned, which might come off as disingenuous. The blogger you quoted uses the Latin phrase in a few different articles, but unless you're talking to professors or academics I wouldn't use it in conversation.

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I agree, although it is a fairly common saying in Italy, I never heard it by an English speaker. –  nico Aug 11 '11 at 6:40
@nico Interesting--does the Italian phrase about salt meaning intelligence hold any water? –  simchona Aug 11 '11 at 6:41
@simchona, wiki article states: 'The Latin word salis means both "salt" and "wit," so that the latin phrase "cum grano salis" could be translated as both "with a grain of salt" and "with a grain (small amount) of wit."' –  Unreason Aug 11 '11 at 7:23
@unreason--thanks. I just never know when wiki is right on foreign origins, do i –  simchona Aug 11 '11 at 7:27
@Nico I don't think the wiki explanation says that one came from the other -- they share the word "salis", and the other phrase is used to define its connotation. –  simchona Aug 12 '11 at 1:36

"Take it with a grain of salt" is definitely in common usage in normal speech, and everyday life, but if you were to say cum grano salis in a conversation, everyone's head is going to blow towards you, and everyone will be like, "What on earth is that new word?"

Basically, it's not in common usage at all, I wouldn't understand it if someone said it to me, I've never heard it being used. In writing, perhaps it would have been used, but definitely not in conversations and everyday life.

It's like saying mea culpa instead of "My fault", or "My bad.". People would understand "My fault", but not mea culpa. (Or, an alternative, saying "exempli gratia" instead of "for example" or "e.g.". The layman wouldn't understand you.)

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A Catholic would probably recognize Mea culpa though (isn't it used during mass in English?) –  nico Aug 11 '11 at 6:42
Mea culpa while not common, is (IME) commonly understood (especially if extended: "mea culpa, mea maxima culpa"). Whereas the phrase in question just seems to be a pretentious way of avoiding directly saying with a grain of salt. –  Richard Aug 11 '11 at 8:45

Orwell's fifth rule of effective writing applies: "Never use a foreign phrase, scientific word or jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent."

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Effective to what purpose though? It's often preferable to use a scientific word because they're so much more precise, and a foreign phrase can provide nuance when the meaning is clear. I'd never heard cum grano salis before, but prefacing it with "take something" made it perfectly clear. –  Travis Bemrose Jul 3 at 2:20

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