One Word: Salty


One Word

In our new column One Word, writers expound on their favorite words. 

One kid raises their hand.

They ask, “Miss Gurba, why’d you become a high school teacher?”

This is a classic time-killing move.

My tone turns serious. I respond, “It was an accident.”

Hearing a public school employee be so blunt widens kids’ eyes.

They’ve baited me into a tacit game of truth or dare and I’ve knowingly broken the rules. I’m pretty sure they expect me to belt out the opening lyrics of “Greatest Love of All.” They want a saint.

What garbage. Catholics raised me, but I’m not a martyr. Still, even teenagers know you’re not supposed to admit that you stumbled into their classroom, but who cares? I did and I stayed and I continue to stumble in every morning.

Something my students ask me less often is whether or not I like teaching.

Something they ask me even less often than that is what I like about my profession. 

“I do enjoy my paycheck,” I inform them. “Great benefits. Also, this schedule is pretty unbeatable.”

Students should learn that although teaching is a feminized profession, that doesn’t mean that I edify my pupils out of maternal instinct, or that any woman does. I, for one, don’t have maternal instincts. I don’t even have pets. My ovaries are duds, and a houseplant once got on my nerves so badly I threw it in a dumpster. It was still alive.

Cracking my arthritic knuckles, I explain, “I don’t do what I do out of altruism. Capitalism makes me do this. We’ll be covering both of those isms this semester, in economics. Now, get out a sheet of paper. Title it ‘Shift Happens.’ We’re gonna be shifting supply and demand.”

I rarely get sentimental with my students. Still, there are moments when I adore teaching almost as much as I adore my Mexican mother, Beatriz. These moments come when my urban high schoolers give me gifts. I’ve been given some intentional gifts by them: a few Frappuccinos, a copy of Freakonomics, a rusty ThighMaster, a peppermint-scented body lotion. I, too, was repulsed by that one.

My Mexican-Polish dad, a linguist named Bob, turned me into a language nerd, and the gifts I relish most are the unintentional syntactic ones. I look forward to stumbling into my un-air-conditioned classroom every morning because it enables me to listen to kids talk. The Southern California patois my Long Beach high schoolers speak kicks Standard American English’s nalgas [1]. As I haul newly minted worksheets across campus, it really does give me a sense of eudaemonia to hear TOC, teens of color, blurt shit like:

“Yeet!” [2]

“Bitch is HAM.” [3]

“Serenity now, chamaco.” [4]

“You’re a straight knockboy.” [5]

“Oof, hell no. Mrs. So-and-So be so salty today.”


This descriptor didn’t crash into the campus vernacular meteorically, like, say, fleek did. Instead, for the last five or so years, salty has washed in and out of the lexicon according to fickle tides. Some seasons, this tide burbles high. Others, I hardly hear a bitch get called salty, and yes, the word has a gynocentric, often misogynistic, quality.

Salty grabbed my ear from the moment I first heard it. Unlike HAM or yeet, salty made me think of Herman Melville. It twisted my mind toward his final novel, Billy Budd, Sailor. All a kid has to do is say the pseudo-epithet and they instantly become Melvillean to me. I imagine the youngster at sea, trapped on a nineteenth-century vessel, and of course, they still somehow have their phone. The TOC texts home, declaring, “Please! I wanna come back! Shit be [6] crazy on this boat! They finna [7] kill the gay güero [8] that reminds me of Chuy!”

Skull emoji.

“At sea, a fellow comes out,” Melville wrote in a letter to publisher Evert Duyckinck. “Salt water is like wine, in that respect.”

This assertion parallels a Mexican proverb: “Los niños y los borrachos dicen la verdad.” [9] To call someone salty is a confession. It is to confess that somebody is bothering you and that her annoyance stings, burns. One suspects that the salty individual has perhaps herself been burned and is displacing her pain onto the nearest person, sprinkling sodium chloride onto any soft, exposed part. The salted victim is justified in their pain while the salty one is not, and therein lies a tenet of twenty-first-century American morality: If you show me your pain, you must show me its credentials. Your receipts.

In 2015, the American Dialect Society awarded salty a yearbook-inspired superlative: Most Likely to Succeed. A word with fifteenth-century origins, salty has slowly but surely made it. According to Merriam-Webster, salty derives from the Latin salsus, and the word made its first appearance in the Latin–English dictionary Promptorium Parvulorum. Salty meant both tasting of salt and being covered in salt, and this strikes me as obliquely ironic: the ancients regularly salted newborns to toughen their skin. In the nineteenth century, salty hopped aboard a ship and sailed toward its contemporary usage. The word acquired maritime associations, becoming hitched to sailors, men notorious for raising swearing to an art form. During the twentieth century, salty got its land legs back as black folks and hepcats used it to denote hair-trigger rage.

When I prompted a senior member of the student body to explain how a salty person behaves, she replied, “Salty is the opposite of sweet. It’s someone who gets upset for apparently no reason and has an attitude. Someone that’s grumpy or mad or basically butthurt.”

According to, butthurt originated as online slang. The term migrated to IRL speech and describes a “strongly negative or overemotional response” or, to ma’amsplain, the historically feminine temperament. The truth, however, is that the most butthurt among us are men. See: Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. (It is also worth noting that the most butthurt among men are often pink, not brown.)

Butthurtedness, or the pain of being a bottom, is essential to saltiness. This is why a plurality of teenage boys take such offense to being called salty; many perceive it as tantamount to being called a faggot. When poet Wisława Szymborska, author of the 1962 collection Sól, took on the Book of Genesis, she traced the reactionary sadism that butthurtedness elicits. In the poem “Lot’s Wife,” Szymborska re-creates the terrain outside Sodom, a gothic landscape that her writing enables us to see, hear, and feel. Creeping through hills, Lot’s wife stares at the nape of her husband’s neck, at her daughters vanishing across hilltops. Her path teems with snakes, spiders, mice, and vultures. Thunder sounds. Wind lifts her robe.

Having been expelled from home by the Almighty and ordered to never look back, Lot’s wife not only looks back, she looks back in anger to savor her hometown’s divine destruction.

For her sadistic disobedience, the Almighty turns her into a gynomorphic pillar of salt. I watched this transformation happen during Easter vacation when I was ten. Channel Five was broadcasting John Huston’s 1966 flop The Bible and Italian sex goddess Eleonora Rossi Drago was playing the broad who dared to peek. As primitive special effects rendered Rossi Drago white, I thought, She doesn’t look that bad. My blood pressure dropped. My mouth watered. I wanted to taste her.

Lot’s wife also served as muse to Anna Akhmatova, and in an ode to her, the poet petitions, “Who will grieve for this woman? Does she not seem too insignificant for our concern?” Many a high school student would respond that salty women don’t merit our concern. The sweet should.

But I’d like to extend Akhmatova’s plea even further. What’s the point of submitting to a deity so petulant that he would punish a terrified and homesick woman for looking back in anger?

Moreover, what’s this deity so butthurt about?

The god of the Old Testament is a salty father.

Rage, like salt, is elemental to human health. It also serves as a moral foil. “Rage is by no means an automatic reaction to misery and suffering as such,” wrote political philosopher Hannah Arendt. “Only where there is reason to suspect that conditions could be changed and are not does rage arise.” And yet, while an apathetic response to our feminine lots would be impossible, the eminent reasonableness of salty women is denied. Dr. Christine Blasey Ford had every right to be salty when she appeared in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, yet her “graceful” performance invited the public to applaud her decorum. Meanwhile, salty women like Harvey Weinstein victim Rose McGowan are denied validation.

I once dated a fellow teacher who hated the way his students spoke. He railed contemptuously about Hispanic kids’ grammar. But thanks to him, I met Lot’s wife. We milled around at a backyard birthday party thrown for one of his former students, one whose grammar he approved of. A screamo band played by the shed and the former student and I stood on her spotless patio across from each other as my boyfriend introduced us. A delicate chain encircled her tan neck. Its pendant gleamed. In cursive, its metal spelled salty.

I laughed, pointed, and said, “Way to own being a bitch!”

I awaited a high five.

The young woman grinned, adjusted her glasses, and explained “I have cystic fibrosis. Salty skin is a giveaway symptom.” Holding out her hand, she asked, “Wanna diagnose me?”

I let out a laugh just this side of shy, shook my head, and slunk off to the carb-driven buffet. I didn’t feel butthurt. I felt enlightened, and a little embarrassed. And since I have blood pressure so low I often see constellations, I fed myself the saltiest chips. Lot’s wife looked on approvingly, her chain catching the light, broadcasting her sly impertinence. She glowed, a beacon.



1 Ass

2 A broad exclamatory utterance, often used in the context of athletic enthusiasm

3 Hot-ass-mess

4 Youngster

5 I asked the kid who said knockboy what it meant. He said his friend made it up and he has no idea why.

6 On my campus, many TOC, regardless of ethnicity, use grammatical conventions of African American Vernacular English, and unaltered conjugation of the verb to be indicates continuous or habitual action.

7 A portmanteau of fixing and to indicating that an action is in the works

8 Mexican slang for light-skinned dude

9 “Children and drunks tell the truth.”


Myriam Gurba is the author of Mean, a nonfiction novel and memoir. She lives in California and loves cash, succulents, and the elderly.