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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Salt of the Earth

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Соль: salt

Соль (salt), that ubiquitous crystal white stuff on every kitchen table, looms fairly large in the Russian collective unconscious.

Crucial for food preservation, it was a precious commodity in old Russia. An attempt to hike up the price of salt in the 17th century resulted in a violent “salt rebellion” (“соляной бунт”), and not long ago rumors of an imminent price hike in a provincial Russian city led to panicked hoarding.  

The stuff you use in the kitchen is usually called поваренная соль (common or cooking salt). The more finely grained stuff you shake onto your food is столовая соль (table salt), which is sometimes йодированная (iodized). The stuff you get from the sea is морская соль (sea salt); the stuff that comes in a chunk is каменная соль (rock salt); and the stuff you put in your bath after an overly enthusiastic workout at the gym is горькая соль (Epsom salt; literally “sour salt”).

There is also the more obscure аттическая соль (Attica salt), which is not what convicts sentenced to hard labor in the Attica prison haul out of salt mines. It refers to Attica in ancient Greece, renowned for both its elegant wit and fine sea salt. The Russian expression means an elegant and witty turn of phrase.

Figuratively speaking, plain unadorned соль can also mean a witticism, often rather sharp-tongued — something that spices up an otherwise bland conversation. You may come across this usage more in 19th-century Russian literature than in contemporary speech: И сколько тут злости, смеха и соли! (How much spite, laughter and wit are here!)

Соль can also refer to the main point or essence of something — the nub. For example, if you are telling a long story and you keep the most important part for last, you can spring your revelation on your listeners, then sprinkle with salt for piquancy: Оказывается, он - владелец компании. Вот в чем вся соль! (It turns out that he owns the company! That’s the bottom line.)

Соль also figures in some common Russian phrases. Both Russians and English speakers have incorporated the Biblical соль земли (salt of the earth) into their lexicons to mean the best and most noble members of society. Likewise, people in both cultures understood that salt makes wounds more painful, literally and figuratively: Зачем ей рассказывать про любовниц мужа? Зачем сыпать соль на рану? (Why should we tell her about her husband’s other lovers? Why rub salt into the wound?)

There is another Russian expression that seems to have come from English but changed in meaning over the years. In English, to put salt on someone’s tail means to catch them, but the Russian насыпать соли на хвост means to play a dirty trick on someone.  

And then there is my favorite salty expression: пуд соли съесть с кем-то (literally, to eat a pood of salt with someone). Пуд is an old Russian measure that is about 16 kilograms. In the old days, when salt was expensive and used sparingly, you’d need several years to go through that much salt. So the expression means “to get to know someone well after spending a long time together.” Мы с мужем весте пуд соли съели. Поэтому в нашей семье счастье и покой. (My husband and I know each other inside out; literally, “have eaten 16 kilograms of salt together.” That’s why our family is happy and contented.)

The only downside is high blood pressure from all that salt.

Michele A. Berdy is a Moscow-based translator and interpreter.