Salt Pig.

I ran across a reference to a “salt pig” and was puzzled; Wikipedia has a stub that says, in its entirety:

A salt pig is a container used to hold salt, to make it easily accessible to pinch or spoon measure into dishes. They are available in many materials, but are generally ceramic, porcelain, earthenware or clay. The earthenware construction of a salt pig can help keep the salt from clumping in humid kitchens. According to the blog Mundane Essays, a blog in which writer Muness Alrubaiehis researched the origin of the term “salt pig,” the use of “pig” is found in Scots and northern English dialect meaning an earthenware vessel.

I don’t know why the hell they reference a blog rather than the OED itself, but the pig n.² entry (revised 2006) is quite interesting; the main sense (of which the others are obvious derivatives) is “A pot, pitcher, jar, or other vessel, usually made of earthenware; a crock; (in plural) crockery or earthenware generally.” The first and last citations are:

c1450 Euerilk day..was broght vnto hym a lofe of bread and a pygg with wyne.
Alphabet of Tales (1905) vol. II. 340 (Middle English Dictionary)

1980 Often they were preserved for the a big pig or earthenware jar.
D. K. Cameron, Willie Gavin xii. 122

(My favorite in between is from J. Spence, Shetland Folk-lore [1899]: “I’ll creep me up an’ kirn da tip o’ milk, sae dat du gets a aer o’ druttle i’ da pig.”) The etymology:

Origin uncertain; perhaps compare slightly earlier piggin n. [“A (small) pail or similar vessel”] (although see also discussion at that entry), and perhaps compare also prig n.² [“A small metal pan; (also) a small pitcher”]; perhaps originally a transferred use of pig n.¹, perhaps on account of the resemblance of the vessels to a pig.

Is this quaint word familiar to anyone?


  1. I am familiar with both the word and the actual item (a ceramic or earthenware container filled with salt or mixed ground spices placed on the table to add to your dish) but the etymology is opaque to me.

  2. @V


    My grandmother kept one in the ‘scullery’, for both salting the innumerable saucepans of boiling vegetables; and ‘blueing’ the laundry.

  3. I don’t know why the hell they reference a blog rather than the OED itself

    My guess would be the person adding the reference did not have access to the OED itself. Citation piggybacking is academic malpractice.

  4. David Marjanović says

    the etymology is opaque to me

    The etymology of pig n.¹ seems to be opaque to everyone… it looks like a nickname, but a nickname based on what? Farrow somehow?

  5. Anatoly Liberman ties bag, big, and pig (in the usual sense) to a Germanic sound-symbolic form with a sense of roundness and such. This pig fits in as well.

  6. pig n 1 Sense 11 ‘pig iron’ or ‘… lead’ [wikti]

    The traditional shape of the molds used for pig iron ingots is a branching structure formed in sand, with many individual ingots at right angles[3] to a central channel or “runner”, resembling a litter of piglets being nursed by a sow.

    Pig iron was not produced in Europe before the Middle Ages. … postulated a possible link via Persian contacts with China along the Silk Road and Viking contacts with Persia, … [dubious]

    That perhaps reinforces the perhaps on account of the resemblance of the vessels to a pig.

    sand -> earthenware, rough-shaped. 1450 would be after ironworking had started in Britain.

  7. AntC beat me to it: I don’t know ‘salt pig’ but immediately thought of pig iron.

  8. I am familiar with salt pig, although if you showed me one and asked what it was called, I would probably take some time to come up with the name; despite having had one sitting around the kitchen for many years, we never really called it by that specific term. Moreover, I had no idea that the word pig or pygg for earthenware had no documented origin before early Modern English.

  9. Yes. Mother had one also. She was raised in Yorkshire. I live in New Zealand, and people make and sell them here (quite a popular item for amateur potters at craft fairs).

  10. OED doesn’t buy the branching-structure explanation of “pig iron”:

    In this connection sow is found earlier. The original differentiation of sow and pig (if there was any) was probably in the size, the smaller masses being called pigs. The modern explanation, i.e. that the sow comes from the main channel, and the pigs from derivative channels into which the liquid metal is run from the furnace (applicable only to iron) is a later adaptation of the terms to the development of the iron industry, of which the earliest indication is in quot. 1686 at sense III.11d, where however ‘sow’ and ‘piggs’ may refer merely to size.

    There are “pigs” and “sows” of other metals, recorded earlier than “pigs” of iron: sows of lead from before 1500, sows of iron from the mid-1500s, pigs of lead from before 1600, whereas “pigs” of iron and the branching channels method didn’t appear until the mid-1600s, at least according to the OED. Anyone have a better source on the history of smelting? (Wikipedia’s footnotes go to a source on modern metalworking and a source that describes a “sows and pigs” structure from the 1800s, so it has no evidence that the structure preceded the terminology.)

  11. Jen in Edinburgh says

    Not specifically for salt, I don’t think, but generally for an earthenware vessel, and in particular one filled with hot water and put in a bed in the days before rubber hot water bottles. Not that I’ve ever used one, but I would know its name.


    “Salt cellars (a.k.a salt boxes, salt keepers, salt pigs—pig is supposedly the old Scottish word for pot)”. Serious Eats is great when it comes to culinary history — Ken Albala is a contributor. The article is not by him, though.

    “iron ingots is a branching structure formed in sand, with many individual ingots at right angles” : I remember making this in high school crafts class.

  13. The earthenware hot water bottle you put in your bed is cozily familiar to me from my childhood (I’m also in Edinburgh, Jen!). They are cylindrical, with a grey glaze and a sort of handle at one end that looks a bit like a pig’s nose, so it seemed obvious to me as a child why it was called a pig.
    Here’s an image of one (ours were not quite so fancy):
    The text there suggests that it’s not the resemblance to a pig that gives it the name:
    “Although its easy to think the term ‘pig’ comes form the little ‘snout’ at the top of the bottle, this is actually a handle that stays cool. Pig, or pyg, is a Scots word for a pot, pitcher or jar that’s usually earthenware.”

  14. The OED also believes that a connection with ‘piggy-bank’ is probable: ‘although a connection with pig n.2 also seems probable: compare pirlie pig at pirlie n. for earlier use of pig n.2 in the name of a pot used as a money box’

  15. My guess would be the person adding the reference did not have access to the OED itself.

    I definitely have no objections to that it is paid, they are not a sceintific journal or something and they are much, much better than Russian dictionaries. But fragmentary quotations from OED are a torture.

  16. Kate Bunting says

    We (Derbyshire) had one or two ‘stone’ hot water bottles when I was a child, and occasionally used them, but they were never called pigs. I had heard of ‘salt pigs’, though.

  17. Pig, or pyg, is a Scots word for a pot, pitcher or jar that’s usually earthenware

    Does that mean that a pig in a poke is a container inside another container?

  18. Yes, I’ve got a salt pig and it isn’tmy first. It currently contains something strange to us Brits: kosher salt.

  19. We have a salt pig designed to look like a pig on our counter that we keep coarse salt in. Its purchase was either occasioned by us finding out the term “salt pig” and stumbling upon the product while looking it up, or by us deliberately expanding our collection of pig-shaped housewares, having previously acquired a katori buta designed to look like a pig.

  20. Is there some connection to a “piggy bank” as well?

  21. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    Kosher salt:

    You can’t get organic salt because there are no regulations about what shouldn’t have gone into your dried-up lake (or the North sea) back when it was deposited. (And it would be hard to check). Logically considered, salt is a chemical additive, it’s just accepted that you can put it in organic-certified products. (I’ve seen organic vegetable stock powder that was 49% salt by weight).

    So what can make salt non-kosher? (Or is it really a way of designating a type of salt grains that are used in traditional kosher cooking? And will your food be non-kosher if you use another kind?)

  22. PlasticPaddy says

    Same as with kosher wine, you pay for a rabbi’s stamp of approval. Ideally the rabbi should check that no non-kosher materials or production methods are used.
    Edit: re wine, I did not know there were so many rules…

  23. wikip has an article on ‘kosher salt’.

    The term kosher salt gained common usage in the United States and refers to its use in the Jewish religious practice of dry brining meats, known as kashering, and not to the salt itself being manufactured under any religious guidelines. Some brands further identify kosher-certified salt as being approved by a religious body.[6]

    I read that to be saying no necessary “stamp of approval”; any goy/kova tembo can claim their salt is kosher.

    I have a bag of “unrefined sea salt coarse” “Natural unrefined & additive free New Zealand Sea Salt”. It’s in large/irregular-shaped flakes/lumps — much larger than table salt: I put it in a grinder if I need that. And I see ‘Best before’ Aug 2021, so probably its kosherness has expired — if it ever was. (How would it ‘go off’? presuming I kept the bag sealed.)

    I can confirm as per wikip that it’s much more abrasive for cleaning out my Le Creuset pans — which are supposed to never go near detergent.

  24. Wikipedia:

    Kosher salt or kitchen salt[ (also called cooking salt, rock salt, kashering salt, or koshering salt) … Coarse edible salt is a kitchen staple, but its name varies widely in various cultures and countries. [edit to remove AntC quote]

    In Ireland the distinction is kitchen/cooking salt vs table salt. I presume many American Jews use “table salt” which is kosher and probably certified as such but not “kosher salt” in this sense.

  25. David Marjanović says

    In other words, the space in kosher salt is a lie, and the kosher part is a verb stem, not an adjective.

    Compare living room.

  26. @AntC: any goy/kova tembo

    Are you thinking of tembel ‘fool’? Or of kova tembel, i.e. a tembel hat?

    (It always comes down to the hats eventually around here.)

  27. @DM: absolutely!

    hekshered salt – certified by some rabbi or other to not contain any treyf elements mixed in (brine shrimp, for instance – is a different thing entirely. it’s easily possible to have “kosher salt” that isn’t hekshered, and hekshered salt that isn’t “kosher salt”.

  28. @mollymooly: I myself have never seen meat being koshered with salt, but I assume the salt is meant to absorb the blood without fully dissolving, after which it is brushed off. Fine salt, like table salt, would tend to dissolve completely, and would be hard to brush off completely.

    Apparently there are some objections to table salt because it ususally contains some anti-caking agents which would absorb the blood, instead of the salt itself absorbing it. Those who spend their their time looking for ways to be strict find such issues absorbing.

  29. Stu Clayton says

    The name kosher salt is not necessarily a reference to Jewish culinary standards. There’s no rabbi blessing large industrial bins of salt in a warehouse somewhere … Kosher salt is not a Jewish mineral.

    I’d never thought about this before: in Christian practice there is the idea that you “bless” something to change it in some way (“holy water”). Apparently, what Jewish people do that is called “bless” is more a thanksgiving, rather than an attempt to stick their oars into ontologies. Is that so ?

  30. David Marjanović says

    anti-caking agents which would absorb the blood, instead of the salt itself absorbing it

    Wouldn’t that make them caking agents?

    Fun fact: pure sodium chloride isn’t hygroscopic ( = air humidity doesn’t stick to it, so it doesn’t cake); magnesium salts are (and they’re present in sea salt, less in rock salt).

  31. Are you thinking of tembel ‘fool’? Or of kova tembel, i.e. a tembel hat?

    I wasn’t aware they were different. (” It is not known whether the slang term was named after the hat or the hat after the slang term.” — wikip) When I was introduced to the hat and its name (on a kibbutz in the ’70’s), I learnt the caricature of the hat-wearer was to be a plodding worker of dull imagination. (And thanks for correcting my spelling — that explains why I couldn’t find it on wikip. Perhaps you could also tell me where my hat has got to in my dusty archives.)

    (It always comes down to the hats eventually around here.)

    Of course!

  32. @Stu: sure, more or less, in principle (except, of course, where it’s not).

    but none of that has to do with kashrus, which isn’t about blessing in any sense – it’s about comformity with regulation. a heksher (on salt as anything else) is in structural essence the same as a USDA meat inspector’s stamp, just certifying different characteristics and on the basis of different model of authority, exercised on a decentralized and basically voluntaristic basis.

    and that’s true more generally as well. ritual status in jewish contexts has nothing to do with blessing or invocatory ritual; it’s about the object or person in question and its existing characteristics (again, except for the times when it works in another way*). blessings before eating, for example, are not about changing the status of the food** – they’re about proper preparation of the eater (etiquette, not alteration).

    * i’m not gonna make an argument about mikve and niddah, because i don’t want to fall down a 1500-year-deep k-hole of commentary and responsa about what the effective agent is.

    ** which is basically unchangeable in any case, and should already have been established by examination and certified with a heksher, if it’s something that could pose a ritual-status question.

  33. Well said.

  34. Stu’s link has “regular table salt (a.k.a. iodized salt)”. This is slightly suprising, because a generic pack of salt in Russia usually contains information about grain size (at least two of them are common) and can be iodized or not.

  35. Stu Clayton says

    @rozele: Thanx for the info – “etiquette not alteration”. Also I learned the words mikve, niddah and (elsewhere – you omitted this one, for reasons I can only guess at) zav.

  36. Zav (for those who need to know).

  37. In younger men, it’s typically a symptom of a STI, in older men, of prostate problems.

  38. A fairly common Hebrew woman’s name, זִיוָה Zíva (penultimate stress, from √zyw ‘to glow’), is not to be confused with זִיבָה zivá (final stress, from √zwb ‘to drip, ooze’) ‘gonorrhea’. By coincidence, I learned yesterday of the song Ziva, by Polianna Frank, a late ’80s–early ’90s Israeli band. The gist of the song is that the singer is enamored of a girl (in more than spiritual ways btw) although her name is disgusting. The lyrics are a bit high-schoolish but it’s a fun song, written by a man (in high school, in fact), and sung by a woman.

  39. ziva

    Also unsuspecting Arabic learner should not confuse zīna and zināʔ.
    The former is a female given name (and a popular algerian pop song) and the latter is fornication.
    I hope Russian name Zína (which is why L1-Russian Arabic learner would pay attention to this pair) sounds more like the former.

    PS. the popular algerian pop song just for completeness.
    PPS. just realised that I began ignoring capitalisation in arabic words.

Speak Your Mind