The changing flavour of money

Return to Publications

Does the expression "to be worth your salt" puzzle you? Have you heard someone complain about a price being too salty and wondered what salt has to do with it? Do you know why an employee's earnings are called a salary?

Bear with me for a second while I turn back the clock a few thousand years, and everything will become clear. Before there were refrigerators, people used salt to preserve food. Hence salt was extremely valuable – even wars were fought over it. A soldier in ancient Rome was paid either a quantity of salt or a "salarium," money with which to buy salt. The ancient road built for transporting salt from the mouth of the Tiber to Rome was aptly called the Via Salaria—and it's still there.

So if your employer tells you you're worth your salt, feel good—it means you deserve the salary you earn.

Some of us don't get a salary, but a wage – an amount per hour or day. Wage comes from the Old French "gauge," a security or pledge. An occasional payment can also be called an emolument (from the Old French for what you gave the miller to grind grain), fee (which grew out of the feudal system), honorarium or remuneration (both from Latin words for gift).

But wage or salary, fee or remuneration, what it amounts to now is money. We have many words for money, mostly slang. We also have many words to describe the condition of possessing lots of money, including some picturesque colloquialisms. For me, the phrase "he's loaded" conjures up the image of a man with wads of dollar bills strapped to his body. A person with plenty of money might also be called well-heeled, an expression dating from the time when the state of your footwear revealed the state of your finances. If you'd run out of money, you were down-at-heel, because of your worn-out boots. Or you were broke, a term deriving from the medieval custom of breaking a bankrupt money-lender's table.

In England in the 1950s, if you were from the upper-class you'd use the word rich to refer to someone with lots of money. If you were from a lower social class you'd say wealthy. Although for us the two words are now interchangeable, they come from different sources. Wealthy is related to well, originally with the sense of happy; rich can be traced back to the Latin "rex," meaning king, with the implication of powerful.

A person who clings to his money is a hoarder, from the Old Saxon word for treasure or secret place. Michelangelo, one of the greatest Renaissance artists, was a hoarder. When he died in 1564, people thought he'd died broke. His house appeared bare except for two beds, some glasses, three barrels (two empty) and 24 worn-out shirts. Then came a mind-boggling discovery—in his bedroom Michelangelo had hidden a chest, locked and sealed, containing 8,289 gold ducats, equal to about 66 pounds of solid gold by today's reckoning.

Human nature being what it is, the significance attached to money hasn't changed over the centuries, just the words associated with it. So, if in ancient Rome money was linked to salt, in modern North America the arrival of the sugar-daddy tipped the scales towards sweet.

Return to Publications
Return to Home page

This page last updated: February 7, 2012.