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Salt on a snake's tail

Posted by Graham Cambray on March 09, 2009 at 17:45

In Reply to: Salt on a snake's tail posted by Tanja on March 09, 2009 at 16:26:

: In "Salt on a Snake's Tail" (a story by Farrukh Dhondy) the saying "you put salt on a snake's tail and it'll never bother you again" is used. Can anyone tell me the deeper meaning? I believe it's an Asian saying.


I can't help with the Asian angle. In Europe, there is a long folk mythology about putting salt on a bird's tail. It's a wry joke or trick, mainly, perpetrated by adults on children, who are told if they can put salt on it's tail, they will then be able to catch it (when, if they could get that close, they could have caught it anyway). This goes back a good while. In "Slang and its analogues past and present" by Farmer and Henley they cite: "1580. LYLY, Euphues [OLIPHANT, New Eng., i. 607. Among the verbs are . . . LAY SALT ON A BIRD'S TAILE]".

There are also (older?) folk tales behind this, where - rather than simply being caught - the bird (e.g. a magpie) will grant a wish, teach you how to fly, etc.. And the phrase is occasionally extended to other wildlife, such as deer.

Figuratively, the phrase came to mean to catch or ensnare - so from the same reference, we have: "1824. SCOTT, Redgauntlet, xi. Were you coming near him with soldiers, or constables . . . you will never LAY SALT ON HIS TAIL."
The "never bother you again" bit seems to be at odds with this. Western folklore teaches you to put salt on a leech's tail to make it let go (and my father used to lay down salt to kill slugs), but I don't know of any relevant formal phrases - nor any specifically about snakes.

So perhaps this last angle does come from the East - the main body of Western folklore seems to take a different line.

Sorry not to be of more help. (GC)