The Salt Mines. Really??

Over the past couple of weeks, I heard at least six people (some at my university, and some who work elsewhere) say the phrase “back to the salt mines” in relation to the start of the new semester.   Which led me to wonder two things:

  • where does this phrase come from?
  • what impact do our metaphors have upon our attitudes about work?


The Word Nerd digs around for some answers.

Salt is one of the elements necessary for human life, and has been the focus of political and economic struggles for the whole of human history.  According to the OED, the word salary has its roots in salt as well:

ad. L. salarium, orig. money allowed to Roman soldiers for the purchase of salt, hence, their pay; subst. use of neut. sing. of salarius pertaining to salt, f. sal salt.]

Several dictionaries of idiom and slang trace the expression “in the salt mines,” used refer to the workplace, to late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century American usage.   These reference sources also suggest that the Russian practice (apparently in both imperial and communist periods) of sentencing convicted prisoners to forced labor in the salt mines was the probable source for the idiom.

Salt mining (in Poland, India, and elsewhere) was frequently described in 19th-20th century periodicals (see, for example, “The Salt Mines of Europe” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine (1850); “Partitioned Poland” National Geographic (1915) ) because it was picturesque (there were even postcards) and  extremely dangerous.   Convicts (“Russian Convicts in the Salt Mines of Iletsk” Harper’s (1888)) and African slaves were forced to work in salt mines in many countries.  In addition to the usual mining dangers of suffocation and tunnel collapse, salt radically dehydrates the workers and causes a variety of health problems.  In the nineteenth century, as legal reforms protecting workers became more widespread, salt mines were the site of complex negotiations between labor unions and mine owners.

The Salt Mines? Really?

Through metaphor, the language we use both reflects our perceptions and shapes them in a continual feedback loop.   Each time you say something like “back to the salt mines” (which is usually accompanied by a shrug, or slumped shoulders) you reinforce your own attitudes about your workplace as being somehow like a dangerous mine where prisoners labor.  Sure, maybe you didn’t mean it, or not at a conscious level.  But if you think or say “salt mines,” “salt mines,” “salt mines,” several times a day, you’re probably not going to be feeling lively, energized, or creative.

Pay attention to the metaphors you use and those you hear around you in the workplace.  What small shift in attitude or energy might be possible if you changed your metaphor?

[cc licensed photo by flickr user pboyd04]

Got a new metaphor? Let us know in the comments!

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