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What Does "above the Salt" Mean?

By Maggie Worth
Updated May 23, 2024
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"Above the salt" is an idiomatic expression. It was created in medieval times based upon the seating at a noble table. Salt, which was one of the most valuable and treasured spices of the day, was placed at approximately the mid-point of the long banqueting table. The lord and his family sat toward the head of the table or "above the salt," while the servants sat toward the foot or "below the salt."

In medieval times, society was rigidly stratified. Lords, aristocracy, independent landowners, and other people considered to be important were granted numerous rights and privileges, particularly in public. This included the right to bypass lines at market stalls, the right to eat first if the meal was sparse, and the right to eat "above the salt" at the table. They took these rights very seriously as a sign of rank and power, and guarded them jealously. Lower class citizens, which in medieval times comprised the vast majority of the population, could be punished for usurping any of these privileges.

Seating at the table was also a way to honor distinguished guests of the house. Visitors who merited sitting above the salt were likely to be powerful men or women and their spouses. Religious dignitaries, such as bishops, would likely be seated in such a position, while practitioners, such as monks or priests, would likely be seated below the salt — unless the lord or his wife were particularly religious. Visiting lords and their families would be seated near the head of the table, but their retinue of servants would be seated below the salt with the household servants.

The term "above the salt" is still in common use in modern times, particularly in England and other parts of Europe. Today, a high-ranking government official or a corporate executive might be said to be "above the salt." The term might also be used to indicate the importance of a manager to a new employee or express the status of a club member to a new initiate. In some companies, it is still customary to show honor for foreign emissaries and dignitaries by seating them close to the head of the table during diplomatic meetings or meals.

This term has also been used in literature throughout time to refer to important, high-ranking, or powerful people. It may also be used in movies or songs. The phrase can be used as a true mark of honor or might be used sarcastically, to indicate that a person thinks he is special or powerful but really isn't.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Discussion Comments
By anon995183 — On Apr 10, 2016

In the medieval world, each table had a "head" and a "foot." The highest ranking person sat at the head of the table, often elevated - "upper" class. Think of the "head table" at a banquet. The head was at the most comfortable spot in the room, away from the doors - warmer and safer.

By anon994939 — On Mar 18, 2016

No, the head of the table is where the lord and lady sat.

By cloudel — On Jan 29, 2013

“Above the salt” sounds like a really outdated and snooty phrase. I've never heard it used here in America. Of course, in general, we aren't all that concerned with ranking people at the dinner table.

By JackWhack — On Jan 28, 2013

The meaning of idiomatic phrases like this often escapes me. I don't understand how you can determine what is above and below the salt if the salt is put in the middle of the table.

Also, don't tables always have two heads? I mean, whoever is at each end is sitting at the head of the table, right? Maybe I'm missing something in the layout of table seating.

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