This phrase is used to describe people considered to be of great worth and reliability.
It originates from the King James Bible, in Matthew 5:13, where Jesus said to his disciples, “Ye are the salt of the earth,” meaning, so it is said, that they were more valuable than gold. These words are still used to praise the finest common folk, humble, unsung heroes, decent, hardworking, dependable and unpretentious, the type that give of themselves for the benefit of others and their community.
“The salt of the earth” was first published in English in Chaucer’s Summoner’s Tale, circa 1386. It is still being used as book titles, and in film and songs.
Salt has always been a valuable commodity because it is essential for life and for preserving food. Roman soldiers were paid partly in salt, the origin of our word “salary.” The word “salt” is also used in common sayings, such as, “A good man is worth his salt.” The Bible speaks of a covenant of salt, one of perpetual obligation. In some places, salt was rubbed on newborn babies to protect them against evil forces.
On the other hand, salt is also a poison. In the Middle Ages, salt was spread on land to poison it, as a punishment to landowners who had sinned against society in some way.
Today we use salt to kill garden slugs.
There exists another view of the phrase. Some people, sensitive to any suggestion of insult, contend that “salt of the earth” describes only people connected to the land, such as farmers or herders and is therefore classist. The entry in the New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy reflects this homespun connotation: “Basic, fundamental goodness: the phrase can be used to describe any simple, good person.”
Does calling people “the salt of the earth” imply that they’re unsophisticated or proletarian or simple?
Not in my not-so-humble opinion! I don’t care if you’re a ditch-digger or a wealthy financier belonging to the country-club set; if you’re a decent person, you’re entitled to be called the salt of the earth.
And we need all the salt-of-the-earthers we can get. Go, salt!