Thursday 23 October 2014

A pinch of salt

Toby Lichtig has has written this excellent piece on the politics of Holocaust memorialisation in the current issue of The New Humanist.  At one point he writes:

According to Finkelstein – a scurrilous polemicist whose arguments need serious salination – the modern Holocaust is now little more than “an ideological representation”, invented at some point in the 1960s to service American and Zionist interests. 

I like "serious salination" - very good! It set me to thinking about that phrase, from the Latin cum grano sails - with a pinch of salt.

The 1934 Universal Studios horror movie The Black Cat (based very loosely indeed on the Poe short story) is set mostly in (and beneath)  a modernist castle built by the lunatic Austrian architect Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff). His nemesis is Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Béla Lugosi), a Hungarian psychiatrist. Poelzig's home (where he displays dead women in glass cases) is built on the ruins of Fort Marmorus, which Poelzig commanded during the Great War. Werdegast accuses Poelzig of betraying the fort to the Russians, resulting in the death of thousands of soldiers. He also accuses Poelzig of stealing his wife Karen while he was in prison. Revemge, we discover, is a dish best eaten hysterically.

Anyway, the film reaches a mad climax in a Black Mass (which on the face of it appears to be authentic) is conducted by Karloff in sepulchral lisping cod-Latin and begins (you've guessed it) "Cum grano salis . . .", followed by a succession of ad hoc Latin phrases. All very funny and knowing for the studio heads with a grounding in the Classics.

The phrase is not, despite the commonplace attribution, what Pliny originally wrote - his actual words were addito salis grano ("after having added a grain of salt"). But the Latin word salis means both 'salt' and 'wit', so the phrase could be translated as both 'with a grain of salt' or, equally 'with a dash of wit'. 

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