I hate sand and writing this column gave me the creeps. Beaches nauseate me. There, I’ve said it. If you need me I’ll be in the library.
Dear Word Detective: Though it’s not the kindest of sayings, I have always been curious as to the origins of the term “pound salt,” as in “Why don’t you go pound salt!” — Dave Jaffe.
Me too. This is one of those phrases I first heard as a kid, but never thought to research. Of course, most of my research at that point was focused on dinosaurs and the likelihood (and looming danger) of their possible sudden reappearance. I mention this because I recently discovered a nifty British sci-fi TV series on Netflix called “Primeval” in which time-traveling dinosaurs suddenly pop-up in shopping malls and bowling alleys. It sounds insipid, but my inner 12-year old loves it.
Meanwhile, back at your question, I dimly remember first hearing the phrase you mention as “Go pound sand,” not “salt,” but I suspect the difference is not integral to whatever logic the phrase may possess. “Why don’t you go pound sand” is an extremely hostile way to say “Get lost,” on a par with the forceful suggestions, so popular on premium cable, that the recipient go do something anatomically impossible. Usage note: Generally speaking, phrases conveying annoyance and beginning “Why don’t you go…” rarely lead to constructive dialog or lasting friendships. The gentlest one I can think of is the old-fashioned “Why don’t you go soak your head,” and even that is probably a euphemism for something much more unpleasant.
There are three common “pounds” in English, two nouns and a verb. “Pound” as a measure of weight comes from the Latin “libra pondo.” “Libra” was a Roman unit of weight roughly equivalent to our modern pound; “pondo” means “by weight” in Latin. “Pondo” came to stand, as “pound,” for the weight itself (which makes no real sense), but the original “libra” gave us the abbreviation “lb.” “Pound” as a unit of currency in Great Britain and elsewhere was originally equivalent in value to a pound of silver.
The other “pound” noun is “a place where stray animals are kept” (originally a corral for stray or confiscated cattle). This “pound” comes from roots meaning “enclose; dam up,” and this “pound” is closely related to “pond.”
“Pound” as a verb meaning “to strike, hit or smash with repeated heavy blows” comes from ancient Germanic roots meaning “fragments, remains, rubbish,” presumably referring to the results of a good pounding.
“To pound sand” (or “salt”) is a North American invention that first appeared in print back in 1857 meaning “to engage in a pointless, menial task” (Oxford English Dictionary) (“If he told them to pound sand, they would pound sand, and think that it was the finest thing in the world.” 1905). Literally pounding sand (with a shovel, for instance) is indeed a pointless chore; the sand does not really compress or adhere to itself, so the result is largely indistinguishable from the starting point. Nailing Jell-O to a wall would probably be more fulfilling. To tell someone you find annoying to “go pound sand” is therefore extremely dismissive; in fact “pounding sand” has also served as a metaphorical task the truly clueless might find challenging (“We don’t know whether the young man you refer to knows enough to pound sand or not.” 1877).
While some examples of “pound sand” I’ve found seem to lend a purpose to the activity (“He ain’t got sense enough to pound sand in a rathole.” 1994), such embellishments are probably simply added to make the statement more forceful. Everything is nastier with rats.