The lexical richness of Bostonian one-upmanship

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In the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine, Billy Baker has an article exploring the cultural significance of the local expression salted, a popular put-down among Boston's schoolkids. Baker explains:

Salted is typically delivered by a third party as a way to get into someone else's fight — person one insults person two, and person three informs person one that he or she has just been salted. It's an exclamation point on someone else's insult….

Salted, in this usage, appears to be exclusive to the region, and its demographic reaches from late grammar school into high school. The etymology of salted, however, is the subject of much debate. One camp says it's an abbreviation of insulted, and the word is actually "sulted." Others say it's short for assaulted. The third school, and the one that is most convinced that it's right, says it simply comes from the idea of throwing salt into a wound. But when it is used, and how, is not up for debate; and in this case, the particular word may be new but the role it plays is not. Depending on where you grew up and when, you may have heard other terms perform similar duty: "Burned." "Busted." "Faced." "Dissed." "Sauced."

What comes next should be utterly predictable to Language Log readers.

It's like the way "the Eskimos have all those words for snow," one Boston Latin student said when I asked why we have so many terms for the same thing.

Yes, the popular notion of lexical abundance is alive and well at Boston Latin School, with the hardy snow-classifying Eskimos serving as the inevitable reference point. And it's handy that the student voiced this sentiment, sparing Baker the rhetorical dirty work of bringing in the obligatory snow-word trope.

Baker's overall point in the article isn't really about the local abundance of available put-downs (since, as he acknowledges, such insults are "not exclusive to Boston"), but about the singularly Bostonian pungency of salted:

But salted is better because it's more cruel in that direct, remorseless way that children have. It is not, like its ancestors, meant to be antagonistic. It is final. There is no comeback. You've been salted. It stings.

This at least provides an extra dimension to the usual argument of lexical richness, assessing not just quantity but also quality. For an insult-prone social group like Boston schoolchildren, it's helpful to have lots and lots of cruel put-downs at your disposal, but it's even better to have one especially caustic one. Baker, however, wants salted to say much more about "this city, its people, and our wicked sense of humor." Investing so much revelatory power in one particular word can make for a compelling magazine article, but it's another form of pop-Whorfian reductionism nonetheless.


  1. David M. Chess said,

    February 1, 2009 @ 3:22 pm

    Ooo, snap! :)

  2. Laura Dickerson said,

    February 1, 2009 @ 3:40 pm


    [Sorry, don't know how that slipped in there. Fixed. –Ben Z.]

  3. Mayson Lancaster said,

    February 1, 2009 @ 4:21 pm

    Baker, you've been not just salted, you've been brined.

  4. Jon Weinberg said,

    February 1, 2009 @ 5:35 pm

    Baker's article is pretty silly, and the answer in the article to the "why so many words" question is as incoherent as the question was. But Ben: are you with Geoff P on the utter meaninglessness of lexical abundance? Mark Liberman, a few years back, wrote this:

    "[T]here can be no doubt that the Somali have lots of words for (different kinds of) camels — and even more words for pieces of camel herding, packing and riding gear, camel diseases, things camels do, things you can do with or to camels, camel body parts (whether integrated into live camels or removed for other uses), things made from bits of camel, things that look like bits of camel, and so forth. That's because camels and the material culture of camel husbandry are a big part of Somali life. I do share the general prejudice that it's normal for people to develop lots of words for animals (as well as other things) that are important to them . . . ."
    I know this is well-trodden ground; I've been a LL reader for years. But — as Mark's example makes clear — one can see lexical richness as having some significance without falling into pop-Whorfian reductionism, no?

  5. Nathan Myers said,

    February 1, 2009 @ 6:44 pm

    I don't suppose we can trace this to some Catonian metaphor connected to Rome's treatment of the fields around Carthage.

  6. Urban Garlic said,

    February 1, 2009 @ 7:41 pm

    Wait — person one ("Alice") insults person two ("Bob"), and then person three ("Charlie") informs person one (the aggressor, Alice) that they've been "salted?"
    I checked the Globe article, and the transcription is correct, but the examples given seem to suggest that it's the recipient (Bob) who is "salted," which supports the general idea that it's emphatic and amplifying, rather than turnabout.
    Is it backwards, or am I being thick somehow? That second thing does happen from time to time…

    [(myl) I think you're right — it's a brain-o by Baker.]

  7. Ben said,

    February 1, 2009 @ 8:23 pm

    In Chicago we said "salty" in a similar way, though it wasn't strictly about insults, but rather anything someone might feel foolish about. For example, if you saw someone trip and fall, you might call out "salty!" Often this was accompanied by a salt-pouring gesture. There were several variations on this, too. One I particularly like was "Morton's!"

  8. Aviatrix said,

    February 1, 2009 @ 9:19 pm

    one can see lexical richness as having some significance without falling into pop-Whorfian reductionism, no?

    I should think so. If all you knew about a culture was their vocabulary, and they had thousands of words associated with camel husbandry but only one for fish it might be fair to guess that they spent more time herding camels than fishing. You'd have to filter for biases of the informants and the lexographer though.

  9. Tim said,

    February 1, 2009 @ 9:56 pm

    Just echoing Ben here, but I saw this exact same usage in my high school near Chicago in the late nineties. It was used in the exact same way too (replacing "oh snap!" with "Salt!", etc.)

  10. Fred said,

    February 1, 2009 @ 10:57 pm

    Burn was in vogue when I was in school. This morphed into roast, fry, sizzle (which led to sizzle-lean), bake, and oddly enough, snuff. This was accompanied inexplicably by a fist that one held aloft and swung quickly downward. I have no idea what it all meant nor where it came from, but everyone in the school said and did these things.

  11. rootlesscosmo said,

    February 2, 2009 @ 12:46 am

    I learned "salty" from African-American jazz players in the SF Bay Area around 1959-60; "to jump salty" meant to assume a challenging, bellicose attitude.

  12. John Cowan said,

    February 2, 2009 @ 1:37 am

    I take "Snap!" to be a term of appreciation for anything impressive: saying it in reaction to a particularly well-turned insult is simply one application of this general meaning. This "Salted!" appears to be more specific.

  13. Bob O'H said,

    February 2, 2009 @ 4:53 am

    Methinks Baker has just been pwned. This is the internet, after all.

  14. Wythe said,

    February 2, 2009 @ 12:29 pm

    When I lived in Atlanta, "salty" meant "needlessly or even hilariously frustrated." If you unsuccessfully attempted to woo a lady at the mall, for example, you might be said to be "salty" about the situation. I'm not sure how sweeping this usage was, but my younger brother and some of his friends still describe people as "salty." If Baker read this post and felt bested, he could be salty, too.

  15. dr pepper said,

    February 2, 2009 @ 3:34 pm

    Perhaps the fist swing is leftover from an earlier stage in which a person was said to have been "hammered".

  16. Dominic said,

    February 3, 2009 @ 1:16 am

    I guess the high schoolers I teach in south Louisiana are less creative. Usually they say "Killed!", realized phonetically as [kIlt] with a very short vowel. I myself have been the victim at times, but that's OK, as other times they've pointed that I "got comebacks."

  17. tablogloid said,

    February 3, 2009 @ 10:01 am

    Three PhD chemists were quibbling over an elemental problem. Chemist one dissed chemist two. Chemist two dissed back. Chemist three told chemist one he had just been "sodium chlorided".

  18. MPN said,

    February 4, 2009 @ 9:40 am

    BEN: That Morton's one is hilarious.

    Also, when people drop the Eskimo line, it should be referred to as "snowing."

  19. Ned said,

    February 6, 2009 @ 10:29 am

    Here in Melbourne, Australia, the equivalent at some schools was "You got rolled!". Don't know if it is still used, but I'm pretty sure it came about before Rick-Rolling arrived on the scene.

  20. Aaron Davies said,

    February 9, 2009 @ 9:25 am

    this “oh snap” flowchart seems apropos

  21. Erin O'Connor said,

    February 12, 2009 @ 6:28 pm

    Here in Southern California, a term for such insultedness status (at least when I was growing up in the '80s and '90s) was "moted" ("ooh, MO-ded!") which I have understood to be from "demoted".

  22. Richard Careaga said,

    July 11, 2009 @ 1:55 am

    In the Valley (yes, THAT Valley) of the early 60s, schoolboys had a term for the state of loss of status, a "chop." A chop was sort of an anti-coup and described a loss of face due to some uncool action by the subject. The prime example was stooping to pick up a penny. "Ah, man, what a chop." Less commonly, it could result from an uncool action on the subject, such as being praised in public by a teacher. To my recollection, however, it was not used as a verb.

  23. Mike Fischer said,

    July 29, 2009 @ 11:34 am

    In Orange County we too used the phrase "what a chop". Also the term, "I chopped you Low". Which meant I got one over on you, or embarrassed you.

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