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There is a common (IMOE) English idiom, "take with a grain (or pinch) of salt", meaning one should be skeptical about the information it accompanies. Many times in the last year I've heard others try to exaggerate the meaning by changing the amount of salt in the idiom, for example:

  • "I heard that restaurant is bad, but take it with a huge grain of salt"
  • "Parking in that part of town isn't difficult; take it with many grains of salt"
  • "Take it with an extremely tiny grain of salt, but my friend hated that movie."

I've understood this idiom to originate from an old antidote recipe, either real or allegorical. In this context, I don't understand how changing the amount of salt in the idiom changes its meaning. From conversational cues, I can sometimes distinguish whether the person means (1) "this isn't just hearsay, it's very unreliable" or (2) "I trust this source a lot, so it might be incorrect, but I doubt it". Many times, I cannot tell how the person means to change the idiom.

Question: Is there an explanation for the origin of this idiom which allows its meaning to change with the amount of salt described?

Follow-up: Is there a common understanding of the variances I've listed that have simply never been explained to me? E.g., more salt correlates with more suspicion warranted or vice/versa?

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    Regardless of the history of the idiom, 'grain of salt' now means 'some skepticism', and that can be modified.
    – AmI
    Aug 25, 2017 at 21:42
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    Idioms tend to resist variation, but not as much as many might think. Here, I'd not consider (a) to sound unnatural, though it is whimsical (a huge grain?). But 'extremely tiny' ((c)) is outlandish per se; 'tiny' would be better. (b) just sounds contrived and clumsy. Aug 25, 2017 at 21:44
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    I'd hyperbolize that idiom by saying "a ton of salt". In fact, I have said that. Aug 25, 2017 at 21:50
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    I have certainly heard "take with a shitload of salt".
    – Hot Licks
    Aug 26, 2017 at 1:26
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    a "Lot of salt" isn't idiomatically correct, but makes a cool Biblical reference.
    – user3065
    Aug 26, 2017 at 2:36

4 Answers 4

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It is actually very common to modify idioms of this sort, particularly in less formal contexts. An expression such as "take it with a pinch of salt" is a colourful idiomatic expression used to make language more lively and interesting - and therefore it is natural to make it even more colourful and perhaps amusing by varying the size. For instance

as Andrew and Aki are good friends on mine, this review is definitely subjective and biased! Hence to take with a spoonful of salt. (R-bloggers)

Take the ‘Truth’ of Dan Rather’s downfall with a barrel of salt (New York Post, 2015)

so please take with a ton of salt as my experience may differ from other organizers (someone on Twitter)

The same thing happens with other idioms, particularly those involving specific sizes.

One similar idiom is wouldn't touch with a ten foot pole - this is used when "someone does not want a particular thing or person at all, or does not want to have anything at all to do with it or them" (Cambridge). You get variants such as

[Windsor Castle] was so valuable that insurance companies wouldn't touch it with a five-mile pole (grunge.com)

I know gas tank breaches can be welded but that's something I wouldn't touch with a 1,000 mile pole. (MBWorld car forum)

Academia, journalism and publishing. Three fields I wouldn't touch with a light-year long pole these days. (Reddit)

You can also look at this answer about variations in "a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush", which shows a large number of variants.

If you are writing very formal English (especially when aimed at non-native speakers or people from widely different backgrounds) then you want to avoid excessive use of this kind of idiom, and should only use the clearest, deadest sort (that are in all the dictionaries and won't upset anyone). But if you are writing something more informal or humorous, then varying idioms is a common source of humour. This is particularly the case in the kind of snarky online journalism that is common today.

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  • Yes, English speakers often change idioms but do so idiomatically. Take something with a ton of salt, for example.
    – Lambie
    Mar 15 at 16:12
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My answer to this is that as language is alive, you will have salt added or taken out of it, regardless of the origins of the idiom.

One the arguments supporting this is that few people, except those with a particular linguistic interest, will know where an idiom originated. That should apply to any idioms in any languages whatsoever.

The second argument is that the whole point of language is getting your point across. That means manoeuvres not only are, but should and often have to be used so as to convey an intended message.

As a side-note from a non-native speaker, I see native speakers often use English idioms in the same way. So one hypothesis is that it may feel strange for native speakers if you are to take something with a "huge grain of salt", because of habituation.

I speak Portuguese as my 1st language, a language in which (at least in the Brazilian side of it) you'll hear dozens of versions of the same idiom. Especially in the countryside, people often coin their own versions of it. The further I go into the hinterlands, the more I see word coinage being used as well, although theoretically that should not happen, as there's no intrinsic word coinage mechanism in the Latin branch of Indo-European languages, as opposed to, say, in German.

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"Take it with a grain of salt" means the subject is insignificant and would only require a grain to affect it. "Take it with a large grain of salt" means its more significant and would require more salt to affect it although most "large grain" quotes intend to mean the opposite. No?

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    – Community Bot
    Mar 14 at 21:34
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The origin you can look up and we can discuss it. It is used as you say and so its usage it real. You may find people misusing it merely to emphasize what they hear and not to discount or throw doubt onto it.

Particularly •"I heard that restaurant is bad, but take it with a huge grain of salt" would mean that the doubt was great and place was wonderful while the tone made me think it was a terrible place.

To me if the speaker is altering the phrase I would think that they may not know how to use it but take that with a grain of salt.

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    "A huge grain of salt" is a strange way of hyperbolizing the idiom, though. Grains of salt can have different sizes, but a "huge grain" sounds illogical. It also seems you're not actually answering the question (or, rather, contradicting yourself).
    – Joachim
    Mar 15 at 19:55

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