to sit below the salt

 

the Golden Salt-cellar of State

The Salt-cellars are of singular form and rich workmanship. The most noticeable is—the Golden Salt-cellar of State, which is of pure gold, richly adorned with jewels, and grotesque figures in chased work. Its form is castellated : and the receptacles for the salt are formed by the removal of the tops of the turrets.

from The Crown Jewels in The Illustrated London Reading Book (1851)

 

 

 

MEANING

 

to be of lower social standing or worth

(also read to eat someone’s salt)

 

 

ORIGIN

 

In this phrase, salt is used for salt cellar. For example, a will written in 1493 contains “To John Wymer and Margarete his wif a cuppe and a salt of silver”. In Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (1870 edition), Ebenezer Cobham Brewer (1810-97) explained:

To sit above the salt—in a place of distinction. Formerly the family saler (salt-cellar*) was of massive silver, and placed in the middle of the table. Persons of distinction sat above the “saler”—i.e. between it and the head of the table. Dependents and inferior guests sat below it.

(* The term salt cellar is pleonastic, since the second word is an alteration (due to association with cellar) of saler, an obsolete word meaning salt cellar and derived from the Old French feminine noun saliere (modern French salière), from Latin salarius, meaning of, or pertaining to, salt.)

In Folk-Lore of Shakespeare (1884), T. F. Thiselton Dyer wrote:

In days gone by there was but one salt-cellar on the table, which was a large piece of plate, generally much ornamented. The tables being long, the salt was commonly placed about the middle, and served as a kind of boundary to the different quality of the guests invited. Those of distinction were ranked above; the space below being assigned to the dependants, inferior relations of the master of the house, etc.

 

The earliest known use of the phrase, in the form to sit above the salt, is in Virgidemiarum (1597), by the bishop of Norwich, religious writer and satirist Joseph Hall (1574-1656). One satire thus begins:

(modernised spelling)
A gentle squire would gladly entertain
Into his house some trencher-chaplain [= domestic chaplain];
Some willing man, that might instruct his sons,
And that would stand to good conditions.
First, that he lie upon the truckle-bed,
Whiles his young master lieth o’er his head.
Second, that he do, on no default,
Ever presume to sit above the salt.

The 1839 edition of this text contains the following note:

Towards the head of the table was placed a large and lofty piece of plate; the top of which, in a broad cavity, held the salt for the whole company. One of these stately salt-cellars is still preserved, and in use, at Winchester College.

In A Straunge Foot-Post, With A Packet full of strange Petitions. After a long Vacation for a good Terme (1613), Anthony Dixon described the miseries of a poor scholar:

This fellow for all this shal be lodged next the kitchin, where the Cookes, and sculles keepe such a scolding that they will take order for his studying : or in some ruynous roome, where his Masters Fathers Ghost is reported to walke [...]. Now for his fare, it is lightly at the cheefest Table, but he must sit vnder the Salt, that is an Axiome in such places : and before he take his seat, Memorandum he haue two legs in store, one for the Maister, another for the Mistresse : Then hauing drawne his Knife leisurably, vnfoulded his Napkin mannerly, after twice or thrice wyping his Beard (if he haue it) he may reach the Bread on his Knifes point, and fall to his porridge and betweene euery Sponefull take as much deliberation, as a Capon crāming (least he be out of his porridge before they haue buried part of their first course in their Bellyes).

In The Guls Horn-Booke (1609), the playwright and pamphleteer Thomas Dekker (circa 1572-1632), using the term salt cellar, played with the phrase:

At your twelvepennny Ordinary, you may give any Justice of peace, or yong Knight (if he sit but one degree towards the Equinoctiall of the Salt-seller) leave to pay for the wine : and hee shall not refuse it, though it be a weeke before the receiving of his quarters rent, which is a time albeit of good hope, yet of present necessity.

But, in Lanthorne and Candle-light, Or The Bell-mans second Nights walke (1608), the same author used beneath the salt (an ordinary is an inn providing a meal at a fixed time and price):

Into an Ordinary did he most gentleman like, convay himselfe in state.
It seemed that al who came thether, had clocks in their bellies, for they all struck into the dyning roome much about the very minute of feeding. [...] In observing of whom and of the place, he found, that [...] it was a schoole where they were all fellowes of one Forme, and that a country gentleman was of as great comming as ye proudest Justice that sat there on the bench above him : for he that had the graine of the table with his trencher, payed no more then he that plac’d himself beneath the salt.

A figurative use of the phrase occurs in the anonymous The Play of Dicke of Devonshire. A tragi-Comedy (1625), attributed to Thomas Heywood (circa 1574-1641):

                                      Must my elder brother
Leave me a slave to the world? & why forsooth?
Because he gott the start in my mother’s belly,
To be before me there. All younger brothers
Must sitt beneath the salt & take what dishes
The elder shoves downe to them. I do not like
This kind of service.

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