The Grammarphobia Blog

The salt of life

Q: In reading one of the stories in James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific, I was stumped by this sentence: “And I am not fooling when I say that for several days the salt had gone out of life.” Can you help me?

A: In the World War II story you were reading, the narrator is describing the reaction of servicemen at the base laundry after their pet dog was run over by a truck.

Michener, who based the story collection on his experiences as a naval officer in the South Pacific, was using a poetical way of saying the flavor (or spice) had gone out of life.

The Oxford English Dictionary lists several figurative uses of the word “salt,” including “that which gives liveliness, freshness, or piquancy to a person’s character, life, etc.”

The OED cites published usages of the word in this sense dating back to 1579, when Laurence Tomson used it in translating some French sermons of Calvin: “They are such that have neither salt nor sause in them.” 

Shakespeare came up with one of the best-known phrases using “salt” in this sense. He wrote in The Merry Wives of Windsor (1598): “We have some salt of our youth in us.”

This passage was echoed by Trollope in his novel The Belton Estate (1865): “He was a man not yet forty years of age, with still much of the salt of youth about him.”

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