In Oxford Learner's Dictionary, under allowance, it says that

Roman soldiers received a salt allowance, called salarium, the origin of the word salary.

2: the amount of something that is allowed in a particular situation

But I don't know the meaning of the phrase "salt allowance".

  • 19
    The meaning is literal, they were paid in salt.
    – user 66974
    Jun 3, 2018 at 6:17
  • 1
    It may help to know that, in ancient times, salt was far more valuable than it is today. It was essential for the preservation of food. Some have argued that it was worth its weight in gold, though that may have been an exaggeration.
    – Cort Ammon
    Jun 3, 2018 at 14:45
  • 3
    @CortAmmon See this question for when salt was more valuable than gold.
    – Socrates
    Jun 3, 2018 at 16:53
  • 1
    Sort of related: peppercorn rent. Jun 3, 2018 at 22:31

3 Answers 3


You cited the second meaning of the word allowance in your dictionary, but the example you quoted might have been best understood in conjunction with the first meaning:

  1. an amount of money that is given to somebody regularly or for a particular purpose
    • an allowance of $20 a day
    • a clothing/living/travel allowance
    • Do you get an allowance for clothing?

In this case, the Roman soldiers were periodically given a certain amount of valuable salt as a substitute for cash wages. (This much-cited piece of etymological historical trivia is disputed, though.)

One of the more common uses of the word in the US, by the way, is for the pocket money that parents give to their children, which may be intended to cover necessities like school lunches or clothing, or may be purely discretionary, or more often a mix.

For example: When I was in 7th grade I got an allowance of 26 cents a day, which covered a six cent carton of milk at school and left me 20 cents to spend as I saw fit. (This was a long time ago, and even back then was a pretty skimpy allowance relative to some of my peers, though of course some of my classmates had parents who couldn't afford to give them any allowance at all.)

For that reason referring to a adult's budget as an "allowance" can have derogatory overtones, especially when referring to money given by a spouse who works for cash wages to one who does not. Be careful when using this word.

Since you are asking about a definition given in the Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries, you may be interested in the English Language Learners Stack Exchange site.

  • Where is that quote from? You don't cite it. (It might also be useful to non-English speakers to not use a quote from like 100 years ago. Allowances now are probably more like $10/wk). Good note about the spouse "allowance" though. Jun 4, 2018 at 15:22
  • Removed the block quote marker from my example, and noted the age of the story. And yup, "50 years ago" is pretty close. The expanded paragraph may be too long for what was intended to just be an example of usage, though.
    – arp
    Jun 4, 2018 at 15:36
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    This conversation has been moved to chat. Jun 8, 2018 at 14:28

In this case, the book you were reading was likely pointing out an interesting fact: That Roman soldiers were literally provided rations of salt, which was termed salarium, and eventually that word broadened to refer to a soldier's entire wage.

This same history provides the basis of the expression worth one's salt, often negated as not worth his salt meaning, in a literal sense, not worth the wage one earns.

  • 1
    Ration is a good synonym here. A ration is to resources what an allowance is to money (most commonly). However, "ration" does seem to imply a temporary or situational limitation on resources (e.g. due to scarcity) as opposed to a fixed amount (like a wage), which is probably why the author chose to use "allowance" instead.
    – Flater
    Jun 4, 2018 at 5:52
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    It might be worth mentioning that the user chose and quoted the wrong definition from the linked dictionary page.
    – Chris
    Jun 4, 2018 at 13:15
  • @chris the sentence the OP questioned is under the definition they quoted.
    – arp
    Jun 4, 2018 at 16:38
  • @arp: Oh yeah, how weird. In that quote I'd definitely say it was being used more as definition one than two (apart form that one limits to money I guess but still I'd say that was closer than definition two).
    – Chris
    Jun 4, 2018 at 16:41

A soldier’s pay -- consisting in part of salt -- came to be known as solarium argentum, from which we derive the word salary. A soldier’s salary was cut if he ‘was not worth his salt,’ a phrase that came into being because the Greeks and Romans often bought slaves with salt. -- Time, ‘A brief history of salt’, 15 Mar. 1982

But myths abound. See this nice article on this subject: Salt and salary: Were Roman soldiers paid in salt? This Time article is nice too: A Brief History of Salt

  • 2
    The author of the first article, Peter Gainsford , absolutely trashes the etymology of salary that is cited in the 1982 Times article. But in your answer you seem to give equal credit to both. No. The two articles do not dispute the myth, only the first, and most recent one does.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jun 3, 2018 at 13:51
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    And seeing as some users think my question is a duplicate of the OP's @White, It's easy to get sidetracked and forget the question is asking about the meaning of "salt allowance"
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jun 3, 2018 at 14:56

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