The (salty) secret life of salami

Terms for several very different food items share a common 'salty' origin, but one has moved on to provide a metaphor for incrementalism.

Matthew Mead/AP
Tomato butter and salami toast is served in Concord, N.H.

Last week in this space we looked at the words flour and flower, originally just variants of the same word, as an example of what linguists call “semantic bleaching.” In this process, part of the original meaning of a word falls out, and the word sets out on its own path, so to speak, differentiating itself from related words.

Stanford linguist Dan Jurafsky points to salad, salami, salsa, sauce, sausage, and even souse as another example of this phenomenon.

Salad suggests greenness, freshness, low-calorie-ness, all things gastronomically virtuous. Sausage is none of the above. Sauce is a condiment, more or less liquid. Salsa is just Spanish for sauce, but it’s come into English to mean the kind of sauce that Spanish-speaking peoples eat, all tomatoes and spice, not to be confused with, say, the sedate white sauces from the kitchen at Downton Abbey.

The common thread here is salt. Salad was originally “salted vegetables,” or “vegetables seasoned with brine,” which the Online Etymology Dictionary says was “a popular Roman dish.” 

Sausage derives, via French, from another Latin term meaning “seasoned with salt,” salsicus. Ditto sauce. (Note how the Latin “al” becomes the French “au.” It’s a common pattern.) Salami came into English from Italian, but also goes back to Latin – to salare, to salt

And souse? It sounds bibulous, but has a respectable culinary sense, too. In the kitchen, to souse (from the German Salz, salt), is to keep food in a liquid such as vinegar. It’s a kind of “pickling.” 

Those who follow politics know the aperçu widely attributed to German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck (but who knows, really?): “Laws are like sausages; it is better not to see them being made.” But of these particular word cousins, salami may be the one that’s gone furthest afield in terms of metaphor. That it lends itself to such fine slicing has made it a byword for incrementalism.

As Wikipedia articulates the collective wisdom: “Salami slicing refers to a series of many small actions, often performed by clandestine means, that as an accumulated whole produces a much larger action or result that would be difficult or unlawful to perform all at once.” The online encyclopedia adds, for the benefit of anyone who may not be paying close enough attention: “The term is typically used pejoratively.” 

It’s widely ascribed to a Hungarian Stalinist named Mátyás Rákosi

“Salami tactics” were what the Soviet Union used at the end of World War II “to produce not only a friendly sphere of Soviet influence but also a cordon of dictatorships reliably responsive to Russian orders,” as Max Frankel, of The New York Times, wrote in his review of Anne Applebaum’s book “Iron Curtain” in 2012. “Applebaum tracks the salami slicing as typically practiced in Poland, Hungary and Germany, and serves up not only the beef but also the fat, vinegar and garlic in exhausting detail.” 

Chancellor Bismarck, meet Joseph Stalin.

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