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?

  • 2
    Regardless of the history of the idiom, 'grain of salt' now means 'some skepticism', and that can be modified.
    – AmI
    Aug 25 '17 at 21:42
  • 3
    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 '17 at 21:44
  • 2
    I'd hyperbolize that idiom by saying "a ton of salt". In fact, I have said that. Aug 25 '17 at 21:50
  • 1
    I have certainly heard "take with a shitload of salt".
    – Hot Licks
    Aug 26 '17 at 1:26
  • 1
    a "Lot of salt" isn't idiomatically correct, but makes a cool Biblical reference.
    – user3065
    Aug 26 '17 at 2:36

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.


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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