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I called my friend "salt of the earth" recently. I meant it in the best way possible - he is representative of moral goodness.

But when I looked up the definition, I became a bit uncertain of my usage. I found two definitions:


  1. an individual or group considered as representative of the best or noblest elements of society.

  2. Basic, fundamental goodness; the phrase can be used to describe any simple, good person: “I like Mary: she's reliable, trustworthy, and straightforward; she's the salt of the Earth.” In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells his followers, who are mainly fishermen and other simple people, “Ye are the salt of the Earth.”

http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/salt+of+the+earth


The first definition fits my compliment very well. "Representative of the best or noblest elements of society". But I dislike the second definition. I surely DID NOT mean to call my friend simple, since, after all, he is a very sophisticated scientist.

I want to know whether the connotation of "simple goodness" or "goodness in being simple" is common with this expression? Is that what people understand it to mean? Or did I use it in the right way?


Update: So there seem to be two types of responses - 1. whether I insulted my friend 2. whether there actually is an implication of being unsophisticated in the phrase.

I'm actually not interested in question (1), I'm only interested in question (2).

  • It all depends on the social and conversational context in which you used the term. Without more information about the circumstances at the time, it is impossible to know how your comment was probably received. But in my opinion, simplicity is not the primary connotation of the expression 'salt of the earth' in any case, so it's fairly unlikely that this is what your friend would have taken from your use of the term. In short, I believe you're overthinking this. – Erik Kowal Dec 23 '14 at 5:22
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    In my opinion, the part of the dictionary's definition including "simple" is easily misconstrued. First, it is probably true that the people Jesus was teaching were "simple", in the sense of humble, and forthright, but the antonym of simple in this case is probably more like "arrogant". Remember that Jesus had little time or regard for the arrogant, people including the Scribes, Pharisees, Levites, and Priests, who Jesus often characterized as hypocrites. Given proper context, Jesus would consider describing his followers as "simple" as a compliment. – brasshat Dec 23 '14 at 5:56
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    Related, on hermeneutics.SE: What does 'Salt of the Earth' mean? (Whether the gospel usage has anything to do with modern usage is up for grabs, but it's good background.) – Susan Dec 23 '14 at 6:22
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    To me this biblical comparison in an everyday situation seems a bit out of the way. – rogermue Dec 23 '14 at 9:02
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    You're right - there's an implication that the person is unsophisticated, that they occupy a station in life which is (according to old-fashioned social values) humble or lowly. Someone working-class such as a coal miner or a factory worker could be 'the salt of the earth'; someone middle-class such as a lawyer or a doctor could not; an aristocrat, a king or a queen definitely could not. There's an implication about social class and white collar versus blue collar work which could (depending on what the listener thinks about social class) be interpreted unflatteringly. (BrEng) – A E Dec 23 '14 at 10:19
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If a word or expression can be taken one of two ways, but you meant it as a compliment, chances are it will be interepreted as a compliment. If someone called me the salt of the earth, I probably wouldn't stay up at night tossing and turning, wondering if I had just been called a simpleton, and fretting because I should have been able to devise a clever, on-the-spot retort (such as, "Thanks – and you're the fertilizer of the earth").

Given that the phrase is usually used in a complimentary fashion (provided one has not "lost his saltiness"), I don't think you have to worry about an inadvertant insult. It might be worth mentioning that one author opined:

To call a person “the salt of the earth” remains one of the highest compliments that can be paid.
Source: Wick Allison, That's in the Bible?: The Ultimate Learn-As-You-Play Bible Quiz Book, 2009.

However, I'd say that the phrase is more old-fashioned than contemporary, and it might strike a secular scientist as rather quaint.

Although I don't think you've insulted anyone, I'm not sure I can give a full-fledged recommendation to employ the compliment often.

  • You wouldn't recommend the compliment? Now obviously I wouldn't given the compliment to just anyone, they would have to be the salt of the earth. But I think it's such a beautiful phrase, I see no reason not to use it. – ktm5124 Dec 23 '14 at 16:03
  • I stand by what I said, which was NOT "I wouldn't recommend the compliment," but that I wouldn't give a "full-fledged recommendation" to "employ it often." No matter how giving, caring, and selfless a person may be, you run a very real risk of sounding overly lofty or a dated by calling that person "the salt of the earth". Beautiful words? Sure, but then again, so are, "Your cheeks are like pomegranates." That may have worked in the Song of Songs, but I'm not sure how far those words would fly in a 21st century Valentine. – J.R. Dec 23 '14 at 18:16
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Yes, "salt of the earth" would refer to one's moral goodness - but it's also a phrase that has class connotations: I think we are far more likely to compliment a hardworking labourer as "salt of the earth" than a well-educated white-collar professional. "Salt of the earth" had class connotations in Jesus's day (he was referring to fishermen), and I think that this survives in current usage.

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The second definition in dictionary.reference.com is a "cultural reference":

salt of the earth in Culture

salt of the Earth definition

Basic, fundamental goodness; the phrase can be used to describe any simple, good person: “I like Mary: she's reliable, trustworthy, and straightforward; she's the salt of the Earth.” In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells his followers, who are mainly fishermen and other simple people, “Ye are the salt of the Earth.”

The American Heritage® New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition Copyright © 2005 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.

This has a date of 2005, which might make it surprising if simple were to mean "simple-minded, stupid, feeble-minded", although it's possible that an earlier edition might have used the word in that sense. I would propose that simple here does not mean that; rather it means "uncomplicated, straightforward, not disingenuous".

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The only thing that distinguishes the two definitions (really just one definition there, think again!) is the definite article.

He is a nice person, salt of the earth! --> stating the quality of the person. (def. 2)

On the other hand,
He is a nice person, the salt of the earth! --> denoting the person as a significant example/ paragon/ only case of the class. (def. 1)

1

I just used the term to describe two people I know who are sincere, honest, hard working and kind. It escapes me how this needs to exclude the educated or world wise people. I have known the latter who are also the salt of the earth. Perhaps the latter are simply more rare. Betsy

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It is important here to separate the meaning of the phrase, in the narrow sense of meaning, from the meaning, in a broad sense of that word, that it gets from the social setting in which it is used. The phrase salt of the earth metaphorically denotes somebody who embodies the values that were alluded to in the biblical passage in which it originated. There is nothing more to its meaning, in the narrow sense.

Whether that will be perceived by one's audience as laudatory or critical (and, perhaps, potentially insulting), depends on whether the audience agrees with these values. That is not a matter of meaning in the narrow sense, but of substantive moral views.

The same phenomenon can be observed with respect to many other terms. For example, virgin means somebody who hasn't had sexual intercourse. There is nothing more to the meaning, in the narrow sense, of that term. In some social circles, the term carries praise; in others it is likely to be perceived as mocking, when applied to a person beyond a certain age. Whether the term will be commendatory or mocking depends on how its meaning interacts with the moral views of the audience; it is not a matter of its meaning alone.

Or consider the term eccentric. Some people frown upon eccentricity, and among them the term expresses criticism, while others find it charming and interesting. Even something like 'he drives a Prius', can be laudatory in some social circles, and an expression of dismissive mockery in others.

In using such terms, one thus has to be attuned to the assumptions and outlooks of the audience; knowing the meaning of the terms, in the narrow sense of meaning, is not enough to ensure that one's use of the terms will have the effect one intends.

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Whoa, when did everyone start worrying that being described as a simple, good person was not a compliment?? Would you rather be called complicated and bad? Being called the salt of the earth is one of the highest compliments you will ever receive. It was used in the Bible to connote the value the person, (as in very valuable) since salt had a lot of value at the time for preserving food without refrigeration. Of course, it also enhanced the flavor of food, then and now.

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    Welcome to ELU. This is a Q&A site for specific answers to specific questions, not a discussion forum. What you have currently written in the "answer" box doesn't actually answer the question asked. – AndyT Aug 10 '17 at 14:56

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