In a comment about salient, Wanda Hill wrote that it’s “interesting to see that salient doesn’t have anything to do with saline, salinity, or salary. Note that they all start out with the same syllable sal. The last three words are rooted  in salt.”

Along those lines, I once made a false assumption about salacious, which the 1913 Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary defined as ‘Having a propensity to venery; lustful; lecherous.’ A century later, the Collins English Dictionary gives: ‘(of books, magazines, etc.) erotic, bawdy, or lewd.’ I knew the word’s meaning but thought it was related to salty in its sense, as given in Wordsmyth, of ‘sharp, witty, or sexually suggestive, as a joke or story.’ (I’ll add that sexually-related sense of salty may be losing its salt, with some current dictionaries no longer including it.)

The truth is that salacious is one more word that came from the same source as salient and resilient, namely the Latin verb salire ‘to jump, bound, leap.’ The root of that verb gave rise to the Latin adjective salax, with stem salac-, which meant literally ‘fond of leaping.’ Based on observations of the way various male animals leapt about when mating, the Romans gave salax the secondary senses ‘ lustful, lecherous’ and ‘provoking lust.’

Spanish has carried the Latin adjective over as salaz, which the Diccionario de la Real Academia Española defines as ‘Muy inclinado a la lujuria.’ The corresponding noun is salacidad, defined in the DRAE as ‘Inclinación vehemente a la lascivia.’ While salacity exists in English, salaciousness is the more common form.

© 2012 Steven Schwartzman


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. shoreacres
    Sep 29, 2012 @ 16:06:41

    Somehow, I went wandering off when I was here earlier and forgot to leave my comment. A fellow who goes by the screen name of “oldsalt” just left a comment at my place and reminded me of what I was going to add.

    As I understand it, those witty, suggestive stories became known as “salty” because of their association with sailors – the “old salts” who were and are much given to sitting around taverns and boatyards telling impolite tales. Some had to do with the salty sea, of course, but many were related to the wenches, reprobates and general ne’er-do-wells they came across in the course of their travels.

    The dictionary folks who are eliminating that suggestive/sexual meaning aren’t spending enough time on the waterfront. Besides my reader, the old salt himself, I know of at least three Old Salt taverns, a Salty Dog saloon, a book called “Naturally Salty” and a local bar that has a story-telling hour called “Salty Saturdays”.

    And then, of course, there are the songs – some of which are pretty heavily salted!


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Sep 29, 2012 @ 18:37:45

      I can always rely on you for maritime connections. You’re probably right that most dictionary makers don’t spend much time in the company of “salty” people like the ones you mentioned, even if there are lexicographers who specialize in just that sort of thing, and folklorists who gather “salty” songs. Still, words come and words go, and it may well be the case that most young people don’t know the salacious sense of salty.


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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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