to eat someone’s salt


Fluellen intimidating Pistol (circa 1850), by Joseph Noel Paton (1821-1901)

Fluellen intimidating Pistol (circa 1850), by Joseph Noel Paton (1821-1901)




Salt has strong symbolic connotations. The phrase the salt of the earth, which now denotes a person or group of people regarded as the finest of their kind, comes the gospel of Matthew, 5:13, where Jesus described his disciples and meant that, as salt has preserving and purifying qualities, so the disciples were the agent by which mortal souls were to be purified and preserved. A custom consisted in putting salt into a coffin, as Satan hates salt because it is the symbol of incorruptibility and immortality. The expression to salt away something, especially money, meaning to preserve it for future use, stems from the days before refrigeration, when salt was widely used to preserve meat and fish for later consumption. (Also read to sit below the salt.)

To eat someone’s salt, or to eat salt with someone, means to enjoy their hospitality. Salt was proverbially taken as a type of a necessary adjunct to food, and hence as a symbol of hospitality:

To eat a man’s salt. To partake of his hospitality. Among the Arabs to eat a man’s salt was a sacred bond between the host and guest. No one who has eaten of another’s salt should speak ill of him or do him an ill turn.

Ebenezer Cobham Brewer (1810-97) – Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (1898 edition)


In the Later Version of the Wycliffe Bible (1395), the Book of Ezra, 4:14, is:

Therfor we ben myndeful of the salt, which we eeten in the paleis, and for we holden it vnleueful to se the harmes of the kyng, therfor we han sent and teld to the kyng.
Therefore we be mindful of the salt, which we ate in the palace, and for we held it unleeful [= not permissible] to see the harms of the king, therefore we have sent and told to the king.

In the King James Version (1611), the metaphor has disappeared:

Now because we have maintenance from the king’s palace, and it was not meet for us to see the king’s dishonour, therefore have we sent and certified the king.

Prouerbes or adagies with newe addicions gathered out of the Chiliades of Erasmus by Richard Tauerner (1539) is a condensed rendering of Adagiorum chiliades (Thousands of Proverbs), originally written in Latin by the Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus (circa 1469-1536). It contains the following:

Nemini fidas, nisi cum quo prius modium salis absumpseris.
Trust no mā [= man], onles [= unless] thou hast fyrst eaten a bushel of salte wyth hym. Wythout fayle it is harde at thys daye to mete with one whom thou mayst trust in all thynges.

And the 1545 edition of this book has:

Passe not ouer salt & the table, as who shulde saye, neglecte not the company of frendes, or breake not the lawes of amitie [= amity].

In 1608, in an epistle to the Earl of Essex, Joseph Hall (1574-1656), bishop of Norwich, religious writer and satirist, wrote:

Abandon those from your table and salt, whom your own or others’ experience shall descry dangerous : those serpents are full of insinuations : but, of all, those of your own country ; which are so much more pernicious, by how much they have more colour of privilege of entireness.

In The Life of Arthur Duke of Wellington (1865 edition), the Scottish soldier, military writer and priest George Robert Gleig (1796-1888) wrote that, in 1806, Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington (1769-1852)

found himself in command of a brigade of Infantry which was quartered in and about Hastings. Had he looked upon this as a slight rather than as a favour, no one could have been surprised. The descent was striking enough from the management of great armies in the field, to the routine duty of drilling and inspecting two or three battalions at a home station. But Sir Arthur never for a moment took so unworthy a view of the matter,—“I have eaten the King’s salt,” was his reply to some who remarked on the arrangement, “and consider myself bound to go where I am sent, and to do as I am ordered.”

The expression bread and salt also symbolises hospitality and loyalty. The following is from Carry On, Jeeves (1925), by P. G. Wodehouse (1881-1975):

‘Mrs Travers rang me up on the telephone shortly before I brought you your tea, sir, and was most urgent that I should endeavour to persuade Mr Little’s cook to leave Mr Little’s service and join her staff. It appears that Mr Travers was fascinated by the man’s ability, sir, and talked far into the night of his astonishing gifts.’
Young bingo uttered a frightful cry of agony.
‘What! Is that — that buzzard trying to pinch our cook?’
‘Yes, sir.’
After eating our bread and salt, dammit?’
‘I fear, sir,’ sighed Jeeves, ‘that when it comes to a matter of cooks, ladies have but a rudimentary sense of morality.’

According to ancient custom, bread and salt were eaten by those who took oaths, hence to take, or to bring, bread and salt, meaning to swear. In The Honest Whore (1604), a comedy by Thomas Dekker (circa 1572-1632) and Thomas Middleton (1580-1627), a character says:

Pox on ’em, and there be no faith in men, if a man shall not believe oaths. He took bread and salt, by this light, that he would never open his lips.

At the end of The Life of King Henry the Fifth (around 1599), by William Shakespeare (1564-1616), because Pistol, a soldier, has mocked the Welsh captain Fluellen for wearing a leek in his cap on Saint David’s Day, the latter declares to his comrade Gower (the sound p for b supposedly reflects the Welsh pronunciation):

               the rascally, scald, beggarly,
lousy, pragging knave, Pistol, which you and
yourself and all the world know to be no petter
than a fellow, look you now, of no merits, he is
come to me and prings me pread and salt yesterday,
look you, and bid me eat my leek.

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