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Idioms, Cliches, and Slang
Word and Phrase Origins
Salt (Sodium Chloride)

Explain the phrase Someone is the Salt of the Earth?


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January 21, 2008 8:33AM

The expression comes from the Bible. It occurs in Matthew 5:13 and is part of the Sermon on the Mount:

"You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt loses its flavor, how shall it be seasoned? It is then good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men."

Accounts in other gospels are similar:

"For everyone will be seasoned with fire, and every sacrifice will be seasoned with salt. Salt is good, but if the salt loses its flavor, how will you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and have peace with one another." ( Mark 9:49-50) "Salt is good; but if the salt has lost its flavor, how shall it be seasoned? it is neither fit for the land nor for the dunghill, but men throw it out. He who has ears to hear, let him hear!" ( Luke 14: 34-35) Somehow this expression has come to mean people who are decent, dependable, and unpretentious. See the link below for one explanation of the expression.

Here is my own interpretation, which has no connection to the common use of the expression. In saying "if the salt loses its flavor, how shall it be seasoned?" I think Jesus was simply saying, "There isn't any way of salting salt. Salt is unique, and if somehow its saltiness were to go away, you couldn't get more from someplace else." This is an analogy. He is not talking about some weird kind of salt that could stop being salty. He's just using it as an example of something that has an essential nature in itself and that doesn't come from outside.

This could mean a number of things. It could mean look inside yourselves for the truth. It could mean that the people who were exposed to the teachings of Jesus directly were getting the real thing and that they then had what it took to season (deliver truth to) the rest of the world--which wasn't going to get it anywhere else. There are other possible interpretations, and different religious groups may understand it differently.

But, like so many other Bible quotations, it is used in common speech without any reference to the source. In common speech, it just means down-to-earth, honest folk who are part of what's good in the world.