In the northern counties of England, and indeed quite generally in Anglican communities, it is reckoned unlucky to be helped to salt at table, and this idea has found expression in the popular couplet, "Help me to salt, help me to sorrow." In a small volume entitled "The Rules of Civility" (London, 1695), translated from the French, and quoted in "Brand's Popular Antiquities," is the following passage:--
Some are so exact they think it uncivil to help anybody that sits by them either with salt or brains. But in my judgment that is a ridiculous scruple, and if your neighbor desires you to furnish him (with salt), you must either take out some with your knife and lay it upon his plate, or if they be more than one, present them with the salt that they may furnish themselves.
In Russia there is a superstitious prejudice against helping one's neighbor to salt at table on account of the liability to quarrels thereby incurred. For in so doing one is thought to have the air of implying, "Well, you have received your allowance of salt, now go away." But if in proffering the salt one smiles amicably, all danger of a quarrel is happily averted, and the act is wholly relieved of its ominous character.
The simple expedient of a second help is commonly regarded as equally effective for this purpose, but it is difficult to imagine whence was derived the alleged potency of such an antidote, which is contrary to the Pythagorean theory of the divine character of unity and the diabolical attributes of the number two.
In many lands, however, it is only common courtesy to help a friend to salt at table; but in Italy this delicate attention was formerly thought to be a mark of undue familiarity, and, when salt was offered by one gentleman to the wife of another, it was a sufficient cause for jealousy and even quarrel.