Frequently in my workplace, when some bad news comes in, the advice take this with a grain of salt is used in such a context to mean choose for yourselves how to interpret this but don't consider it very important.

I've asked several people around the office what they understand this to mean - and each person got to this answer via a different means:

  1. A grain of salt doesn't weigh very much. So if you balance the current issue on one side of some scales, and a grain of salt on the either, you get a feeling for how important this issue is in the big picture

  2. Some people add a grain of salt to coffee to reduce the perception of bitterness.

  3. In Latin the word for salt is the same as the word for wisdom, meaning that the current issue to be viewed through a lens of your life experience.

  4. Pliny the Elder recommended that a grain of salt was to be used as an antidote for poison.

My question is: Can the phrase "take it with a grain of salt" have four different ways to get to the same meaning?


2 Answers 2


Your informal survey was an interesting exercise in uncovering the extent to which different individuals may understand the same expression differently.

In this case, it seems likely that the reason was that not everyone you surveyed was familiar with Pliny's recommendation (as indeed I was not), so they reached for an alternative explanation that made intuitive sense to them. (Mind you, even I am only assuming that the Pliny reason is the correct one; I could be wrong.) For an additional take on the Pliny hypothesis, read what the etymologist Michael Quinion has to say on his website, WorldWideWords.org .

What you observed is what I would consider to be false etymology in action (see the Wikipedia discussion, or consult the external references and links supplied at the bottom of that page). The phenomenon of false etymology is similar in some respects to folk etymology; you can read more about that phenomenon on its Wikipedia page.

I am curious as to how many people you asked about this expression. Also, of those you asked who were not familiar with the Pliny explanation, what proportion had an alternative explanation versus no explanation?

Finally, I notice that your colleagues (and perhaps you yourself?) apparently do not interpret the meaning of the term as "an idiom which means to view something with skepticism, or to not take it literally" (Wikipedia); instead, you described it as "to choose for oneself how to interpret something, but without considering it as being very important" (I paraphrase the wording in your first paragraph).


Taken with a grain of salt, often means that the listener should to take into consideration the source of the information as possibly unreliable or prone to exageration and therefore the information itself should be "seasoned" to adjust for that bias.

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