To take something with a pinch of salt

Example in use: “He tends to exaggerate about all his achievements and how great he is so I suggest you take it all with a pinch of salt!”

Meaning: To not completely believe something or to not take something too seriously suggesting that it might be an exaggeration or not true

Possible German equivalent: Nicht ganz für bare Münze nehmen

Possible origin: Also used as “to take something with a grain of salt” with the same meaning in Australia and America, this appears to first appeared in print as far back as the mid 1600s but there is a lot of information which seems to place the expression much earlier than that.

One theory is that in the Middle Ages, some of the writings by the Roman historian Pliny the Elder were being translated. The translation stated that Pliny talked about King Mithridates making himself immune to poison by swallowing a very small amount of poison along with “a grain of salt”.

The medieval translation suggests that Pliny was using this phrase as an idiom to indicate exaggeration or disbelief but today, most people consider that Pliny was serious in his belief of the protection against the poison. There is no record of any type of “grain of salt” idiom existing in Roman times and is unlikely therefore to be used in any type of sceptical context. In addition, the Latin phrase quoted in these translations and which links Pliny to the source of the idiom, “cum grano salis” is actually Medieval Latin rather than that of Pliny’s time meaning that he would never have used it. All very confusing!

It would therefore appear to be much more likely that this expression comes from the mundane explanation that food was made more exciting by addition some salt and therefore, a grain of salt could make food or even a tall tale (something not strictly true) easier to swallow!

Sometimes it’s important to take the theories you find online about the origins of idioms with a large pinch of salt. Wouldn’t you agree?

pinch/ pɪntʃ


Welcome again to our weekly series that hopes to go behind the scenes of some rather typical English expressions.