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Since, perhaps forever, I had always ‘known’ that the English word salary was derived from the Latin salarium, to the time when Roman soldiers were paid in salt for their service. Salt was a highly-prized and sought-after commodity due to its ability to preserve food and was, in part, also responsible for the development of civilization.

However, my world turned upside down when I read the following extract in a blog:

Here’s the simplest form of the myth.

The word ‘salary’ comes from the Latin word for salt because the Roman Legions were sometimes paid in salt.
Wikipedia, ‘History of salt’

Pure fantasy. There isn’t the tiniest scrap of evidence to suggest this. At all, to any extent, ever.

Peter Gainsford, the academician and author of the blog, Kiwi Hellenist, adds

‘Roman soldiers were paid in salt’ may be the simplest form of the myth, but it’s also a secondary form. […] that seems to indicate that people first started writing about the idea around the 1860s (here, for example).
The older, primary form of the myth is that soldiers were given ‘salt money’, that is, a monetary allowance for buying salt. This, too, is a modern invention.

Wikipedia has since corrected that information, the same historical detail which I had always considered ‘common knowledge’.

The word "salary" comes from the Latin word for salt. The reason for this is unknown; a persistent modern claim that the Roman Legions were sometimes paid in salt is baseless

But Etymonline appears to perpetuate this “myth”

late 13c., "compensation, payment," whether periodical, for regular service or for a specific service; from Anglo-French salarie, Old French salaire "wages, pay, reward," from Latin salarium "salary, stipend, pension," originally "salt-money, soldier's allowance for the purchase of salt," noun use of neuter of adjective salarius "pertaining to salt," from sal (genitive salis) "salt" (from PIE root *sal- "salt").

What is the real history and etymology of salary?

Related but obviously not a duplicate of: I don't know the meaning of "salt allowance"

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    @anongoodnurse thanks. You should pop round more often!
    – Mari-Lou A
    May 1 at 12:57

3 Answers 3

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There may well be more to this, but to start , John Arbuthnot wrote:

... Tributum, properly speaking, was a Tax upon Individuals; one sort of it was called Capitatio, a Pole-tax (sic). Besides the forementioned Taxes, there were several Excises, as that formerly mentioned laid on by Cato upon Luxury and Expences; which perhaps was only temporary. There was a Salt Tax laid on very early. Ancus Martius made the first Magazines of Salt. Salarium or Salary is derived from Sal. Tables Of Ancient Coins, Weights, And Measures (1754)-

There is no mention of soldiers, only of taxes.

Neither is there a direct reference to soldiers' pay by Pliny the Elder, at least at this point:

All the amenities, in fact, of life, supreme hilarity, and relaxation from toil, can find no word in our language to characterize them better than this. Even in the very honours, too, that are bestowed upon successful warfare, salt plays its part, and from it, our word "salarium" is derived. Pliny the Elder, The Natural History

Pliny seems to be referring to rewards, rather than salary as we now understand it.

Salary arrives in English from Vulgar Latin. It came through French rather than directly from Classical Latin. The word (el salario) also exists in Spanish. It must be thought that the word had been used many centuries to refer to compensation of some sort before being taken into in English. Roman soldiers were certainly issued salt as part of their compensation, otherwise Roman armies could never have made the great marches and fought the grand battles. No doubt Roman soldiers thought of salt as important. But it does not seem "paid in salt" was ever a common practice.

"To be worth one's salt" is an idiom in English that has no certain origin. Possibly Roman soldiers had a similar understanding about salt. As the Roman soldiers were the principle purveyors of Vulgar Latin in the Roman Empire, salt may well have been considered a valuable compensation, valuable enough to give its name to "pay".

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    @KarlG....Pole-tax was the auithor's spelling. He also had the habit of capitalizing nouns.
    – J. Taylor
    Jun 3, 2018 at 16:53
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    Two small points: 1. Pliny's mention is vague, in that he doesn't mention the nature of these 'rewards', but from other sources (e.g. Tacitus) it seems clear that a kind of regular salary fitting a certain military rank is in fact intended. 2. Why could Roman armies not have made great marches unless soldiers were paid in salt? The armies possibly needed salt to preserve and transport meat (unless they bought their meat already salted), but why individual soldiers? Jun 4, 2018 at 0:18
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    @Cerberus ..soldiers need salt for their legs and arms to function. "Exertion" causes the loss of salt in considerable quantity. A salt issue, as part of rations, was essential.
    – J. Taylor
    Jun 4, 2018 at 9:24
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    @J.Taylor: But why couldn't the army cooks and ration-makers just add some salt to the food, just as we do now, instead of distributing salt (or salt-money) separately? As I read it, you were saying no army could function unless soldiers were given separate payments in salt individually, which surprised me. Jun 4, 2018 at 12:17
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    @Cerberus...... my understanding of the Roman army is, that at least at one point, soldiers were issued their rations and were responsible for preparation; salt would have been part of the issue. To clarify, salt (and water) is important to any army, whether as a separate issue or included in prepared rations. I'm sorry if I was not clear.
    – J. Taylor
    Jun 4, 2018 at 14:52
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In classical Latin, the word salarium already meant "salary":

salarium proconsulari solitum offerri ... Agricolae non dedit: "the salary commonly offered a proconsul [the governor of a province or, in this case, a high military commander]...he did not give to Agricola" — Tacitus, De vita Iulii Agricolae XLII (written 98 AD)

The (undisputed) conexion to salt had already become merely etymological or historical by that time, for a proconsul was not paid (mainly) in salt nor for the purchase of salt. A military conexion was still apparent. So I think the answer (which I do not have) to this question lies in the pre- or early classical etymology of the word, not in later developments.

You'll probably get a better answer at http://latin.stackexchange.com

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  • It's not only a question about Latin but how and why the word "salary" came to mean a fixed sum of money that an employee receives for their work.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jun 4, 2018 at 8:45
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    That's an unusual spelling of connection. Is it a spelling variant? EDIT It is! english.stackexchange.com/questions/47615/… but more often than not spelled "connexion"
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jun 4, 2018 at 8:47
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    @Mari-LouA Let me insist, the question is not about "salary", it's about "salarius". It seems that you aren't goint to ask in the Latin Exchange which is the proper site. In the meantime, I'm going to ask in the Spanish Exchange. Salute!
    – RubioRic
    Jun 5, 2018 at 7:06
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    @RubioRic the question is related to how dictionaries explain the history and meaning of a word, e.g. In ancient Rome, it specifically meant the amount of money allotted to a Roman soldier to buy salt, which was an expensive but essential commodity. I find it puzzling that you tell me posting this etymology question on EL&U is wrong, but your posting the same question on Spanish Exchange is legitimate.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jun 5, 2018 at 7:13
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    @Mari-LouA I think that the proper site is Latin Exchange and I'm "letting" - I know that I'm nobody to let you post wherever you like, it's just an expression - you ask there, because it's your question. If you don't mind, I'll post there. As FumbleFingers has pointed, Spanish is a step closer to Latin than English, that's the reason for posting in the Spanish Exchange.
    – RubioRic
    Jun 5, 2018 at 7:20
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Other answers touch on the history of the word salary as it connects back to Latin. I'll try to trace a different question - the development of the salarius = soldiers are paid salt folk etymology in English.

The etymology is already present in English in the early 19th century. For instance, the first edition of Webster's Dictionary (1828) says:

SAL'ARY, noun [Latin salarium; said to be from sal, salt, which was part of the pay of Roman soldiers.]

Given the popularity of Webster's Dictionary, I'd expect this factoid to become common knowledge in the decades afterward. Yet Webster likely got this idea from other sources.

The first edition of Johnson's Dictionary (1755) doesn't include this detail. While Samuel Johnson included an attribution to John Arbuthnot in the 1755 edition of his Dictionary, like Arbuthnot, Johnson only mentions salt, and not Roman soldiers:

[salaire, Fr. salarium, Latin.] 1. Salarium, or salary, is derived from sal. Arbuthnot.

Instead, early traces of the soldier-pay narrative come a few decades later in George William Lemon's English Etymology (1783):

salary ... sal; unde salarium; stipendium militare; dictum quod nihil victui magis necessarium, quam sal; a stipend, wages, or fund, established to provide the Roman soldiers with their condimenta cibi

[my translation: sal, whence salarium; pay for a soldier; it is said that nothing is more necessary to feed them than salt; a stipend, wages, or fund, established to provide the Roman soldiers with their food seasonings.]

Either Lemon was familiar with the Totius Latinitatis lexicon (1771) that your own source Kiwi Hellenist linked to, or Lemon had another source (historical or lexical) that made the connection between salt and pay for Roman soldiers.

By the 1818 edition of Samuel Johnson's Dictionary, a similar note attributed to someone else (Malone) had crept into the definition for salary:

[salaire, Fr. salarium, Lati. Salarium, or salary, is derived from sal. Arbuthnot. Sal, i.e. salt, was a part of the pay of the Roman soldiers. Malone.]

Who is Malone? I can't track the source. However, this attribution soon appears in the Encyclopaedia Londinensis (1827), and its similarity to Webster's version ("sal, salt, which was part of the pay of Roman soldiers") suggests that Webster was influenced by Malone or Johnson's dictionary too. So whether Malone is a mis-attribution or something else, the resulting dictionary entries are likely the point from which the myth spread into other English dictionaries and textbooks.

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