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The phrase ‘ōrātiōnī aspergere salēs’ literally means ‘to sprinkle [grains of] salt on the oration’. The grammar in itself is simple enough:

  • ōrātiōnī: in the dative, presumably because of the verb taking a dative (preposition plus verb: Eitrem § 90: Dativ ved sammensatte verb).
  • aspergere: the main verb (here infinitive, as it is the dictionary entry.
  • salēs: nominative plural; presumably accusative plural if subject of verb is mentioned.

My question is twofold:

  1. I understand this expression means roughly ‘to sprinkle one’s speech with wit/satire/jokes’. Is this interpretation correct?
    • What makes this troublesome, is that it seems to cover everything from positively entertaining humour to negatively inserted sarcasm. Is this correct?
    • Could Cicero be described as sprinkling his speech with salt in the second Philippic?
    • Could Pliny be dscribed as sprinkling his speech with salt in his panegyric?
  2. Why is sāl in the plural? Most other expressions seem to use the singular.

The core of the first question, then, is whether or not the expression can be used to mean both positive and negative humour. My two dictionaries, unfortunately, do not go into any detail on this. It would also be interesting if anyone could shed some light on how salt came to have so many meanings related to how we interact socially, and in the Roman context, espcially meaning things like humour, satire, biting tongue, being quick-witted and so on. English seems to have picked up this meaning in the past decade, especially meaning sarcastic or overly negative (‘no need to be so salty’). In Norwegian, to use one counterexample, however, it is generally used in expressions meaning to preserve, take care of health of something (though we too use the phrase å ta noe med ei klype salt – ‘to take something with a grain of salt’).

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Salt is wit. Your interpretation is correct.

huic generi orationis aspergentur etiam sales, qui in dicendo minimum quantum valent: quorum duo genera sunt, unum facetiarum, alterum dicacitatis

— Cicero, Orator 26.87

I believe Cicero is speaking of the oratio humilis here, subtle speech. Wit can be used to sprinkle on orations, and it can mean, oh, so much in saying very little. There are two kinds: drollery and raillery.

So it can be used in sarcasm and entertaining satire alike. There is nothing limiting sales to wit of a certain kind, as far as I know.

The plural is often used; I don't know why, but it may be because one sprinkles jokes over a speech like multiple grains of salt.


Schon Plinius der Ältere hält in seiner Naturalis historia fest, das Salz sei «ein so unentbehrlicher Grundstoff, daß sein Begriff sogar auf außerordentliche Freuden des Geistes übergegangen ist; denn man bezeichnet mit dem Salz, und alle Annehmlichkeiten des Lebens, höchste Heiterkeit und Ruhe nach der Arbeit lassen sich durch kein anderes Wort besser kennzeichnen.»

— Thomas Strässle, 'De arte salis Von der Modellierung einer stofflichen Poetologie in der römischen Rhetorik', in: Antike und Abendland, vol. 51 (2005), 97-119. https://www.proquest.com/docview/229968184

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