Salt of the Earth, the

Meaning of Idiom ‘The Salt of the Earth’

To be the salt of the earth means to be a very good, honest, worthy and reliable person or persons. 1Ayto, John. Oxford Dictionary of English Idioms. Oxford: Oxford U, 2010.,2Kirkpatrick, Elizabeth M. The Wordsworth Dictionary of Idioms. Ware: Wordsworth, 1995.


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Examples Of Use

“He’s truly the salt of the earth — he’d give you the shirt off his back.”

“Our volunteers are some of the most caring and dedicated people I know. To me, they are the salt of the earth.”

Origin

This idiom comes from the Bible, Matthew 5:13 and is part of Jesus’s famous Sermon on the Mount:

“Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted? it is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men.”

This quote is often understood to refer to the preserving properties of salt or to salt being a symbol of purity. This is probably a misunderstanding. The word earth in this passage could have referred to an oven, or more specifically a clay or “earth oven.” In Israel, salt has a high concentration of magnesium and blocks of salt were used as catalysts for fires in ovens. This explains Jesus question about salt losing its savour. Salt does not lose its salty flavor, but as the salt lost its magnesium it lost its ability to stoke fires. Jesus was saying “once salt loses its ability to burn it is no longer good for anything but to be spread on roads.” This makes more sense than supposing that Jesus thought salt actually lost it salty taste and then became worthless.

Consider Mark 9:49-50:

“For every one shall be salted with fire, and every sacrifice shall be salted with salt. Salt is good: but if the salt have lost his saltness, wherewith will ye season it? Have salt in yourselves, and have peace one with another.”

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Sources   [ + ]

1. Ayto, John. Oxford Dictionary of English Idioms. Oxford: Oxford U, 2010.
2. Kirkpatrick, Elizabeth M. The Wordsworth Dictionary of Idioms. Ware: Wordsworth, 1995.