"Salt" Isn't Salty

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
July 22 2010 4:10 PM

"Salt" Isn't Salty

Salt is a great word. It's short. It's got one syllable. It ends on a nice, hard consonant sound. And everyone knows what it means. Salt has meanings both figurative and literal, culinary and technological, and salt can be a noun, verb, or adjective. The word salt can certainly make a fine title: There are books called Salt : a world history of salt, a cookbook about salt, a teen fiction trilogy about salt mines, a novel about Alice B. Toklas' Vietnamese cook, and others. There are songs named for salt. There are poems for salt , too. But as the title of Angelina Jolie's new movie , which opens tomorrow, it sucks.

Ellen Tarlin Ellen Tarlin

Ellen Tarlin is a former Slate copy chief and writer of the "Clean Plate" blog. Her essays have appeared in the Boston Globe, the Boston PhoenixBrooklyn Bridge, Bark, and  the RISK storytelling podcast. Follow her on Twitter.

I've not seen the movie yet, but as far as I can tell, the movie has nothing to do with any of the denotations or connotations of salt. It is not about the seasoning, the mineral, the chemical compound, the mines; it is not about food or people who like to eat or cook; it is not about flavor or a flavorless life suddenly becoming full of flavor; it is not about sailors, or the sea, or the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks or Treaty. It is not about salting wounds or even assault though I have no doubt there are some fine assaults in it. So why is the movie called Salt ? It's the name of the character Angelina Jolie plays, Agent Evelyn Salt. There's no real Evelyn Salt that's just a made-up name for a fictional character. So why name her Salt ? Why get audiences thinking the movie's going to have some deep saline symbolism and then deliver a person who just happens to be named Salt?

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Salt is not the first fakeout title to irk me. The television show House   gets on my nerves, too. It is not about a house, a home, or a family. It is not about a builder, an architect, or even a house painter. It is about a doctor whose name happens to be House . He is not a house doctor in, say, a school. He does not even make house calls. He does not work out of his own house. As far as I can tell, there's absolutely no reason to call him House . (OK, I've seen this show only once.) Again house is a lovely word. One syllable. Short. Nice to say. But so what?

The Sopranos   (which I realize is two words yes, I am a purist about these things) was one of the first of these titles to irritate me. Did I want to watch The Sopranos ? No. Why would I want to watch a show about opera singers? But, no, they were not opera singers; they were not sopranos; they were not singers at all. (Fine, Meadow, who may actually be a soprano, sang a tune or two.) So why pick a word that means something else? Granted, it's a name; it's an Italian name; it's plural, suggesting a family, which is certainly thematic in the mafia genre. And, of course, now one can't say "the sopranos" without evoking the show. The word sopranos has come to mean the show.

I'm fine with titles that are names and nothing more. JFK works. Gandhi works. But one-word titles that are both names and some other recognizable thing are almost completely useless: Milk (why not include his first name, Harvey, too ?), Monk (not a monk), Babe (not a baby or a hot woman but a pig!), Radio (a developmentally disabled fellow), Pumpkin (yet another developmentally disabled fellow), Shine   (and yet another impaired gent), and Beethoven   (not a composer but a dog, as in "Roll over, Beethoven").

I get what the producers are trying to do. They are trying to create a franchise, such as Bond, Bourne, or even Hunt (Tom Cruise's character in the Mission Impossible movies). You see it in the movie's tag line: "Who is Salt?" But I say, eh, who cares? Anyone in the mood for fries?

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