Wednesday, December 8, 2010


Okay, enough about Spam and enough about spam. "Salient" is actually taking a step backwards. Sure, I think I know what I'm saying when I mention the salient point about something. To me I mean, the crucial point, or the most revealing point--something like that. But when I was researching resilience a few posts back, I noticed  a passing reference in the etymology of the word that "salient" was actually a relative. In short, we have another of those salire words, meaning that somehow it probably incorporates the concept of leaping or bouncing. Right? The bouncing point? The leaping point? What? I wouldn't believe it was the same root, but apparently it is. Time to find out how.

So first things first. I am not too far off base in my sense of the word, because "salient" means conspicuous, noticeable, prominent. It is what juts out above the surface. It is, I suppose, what leaps out at one, which connects it to its other salire relatives. It has a military meaning, as when a part of the forward line pushes forward into enemy territory, and it has a geometrical meaning, where an angle of less than a 180 degrees is a salient angle. It has a meaning in heraldry, where it applies to creatures that are leaping or springing. Speaking of springing creatures, the superorder that includes frogs and toads and related fossils is called Salientia.

But the salient point in all this is, well, the salient point. According to the Online etymology dictionary, the "salient point" first appeared in English in the 1670s. The salient point is the heart of an embryo,which seems to leap. It goes all the way back to Aristotle, as the punctum saliens in his writings. "Hence," as the dictionary entry so eloquently ends, "the 'starting point' of anything."


  1. Interesting one this. They always talked about salients in WW1 - the Somme and all that, but didn't know it had to do with jumping or that it was connected to "sallying forth" which I don't do with as much energy now as I used to.
    For some reason I had it in my mind that it also meant 'relevant' like in making a 'salient' point - what am I confusing it with?

  2. I don't thinnk "relevant" is too far amiss. But from researching this I'd say it's more the critical point or the point that stands out.

    I don't think the salient lines at the Somme had much to do with leaping, though. It's more how the line itself leaves the straight and protrudes into the enemies holdings. I think the word's meaning switched in some cases from physical leaping to other ways in which things jump out from the norm.

  3. It is a bit disconcerting, though, to try to look for more clues and find myself directed back to my own post on the first googled page!

  4. Philip, I'm not sure what word you're confusing it with, but I had the same initial thought of "relevant"

    Seana, getting sent back to your own page just shows how good the post is.

  5. I think "very relevant" would be a fair equivalent.

    Glenna, I'd like to think it attests to its worth, but really it's just that not that many posts have been done about its etymology.

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  7. I suppose salire must be the source of the French sauter.

    A marvelous v-word on this one, what happens when the everyone in the village, from elders and witch doctors on down, gets his or her fingernails done at the same time: clanicur

  8. Clanicur is good but your definition is what makes it excellent.

  9. Love learning more about "salient" in your particular engaging way! This relates to some assignments I give in writing classes (adapted from an acting class assignment, actually!) about recalling the salient thing in one's day or week and writing about that.

    When you think back on your day, what one thing stands out?! Or what one thing leaps to the front of your mind? (See what I mean?!)

  10. That would be a great end of the day journal entry to try and do, Kathleen. So often something interesting happens, but gets kind of lost in the swirl of the day.

    Maybe not wholly apt, but a week or so ago, I got a call from a friend who was waiting in the hospital for the report on our other friend's surgery with some anxiety. To take her mind off it for a moment, I mentioned a manhunt that had been going on in Santa Cruz all day for a guy who had tazered a guard, grabbed her gun and been on the loose for sometime.

    "Funny you should mention that," she said, "but when I was driving over I passed this brown car and saw two guys with enormous guns searching through the brush on the side of the road. Until you mentioned that, I had completely forgotten about it."

    Of course, she wasn't really in the typical swirl of the day herself right then, either.

  11. Seana

    I first became aware of salient reading about the Battle of Kursk when I was about 11.

    The Germans attempted to pinch off the Kursk salient and thats pretty much how they lost WW2.

  12. Adrian, I was pretty sure you would come in on the military salient line if you checked in here, and pretty sure it would not be on the superorder of frogs.

    I had a look at the Wikipedia article on the Battle of Kursk, and can see why it would impress itself upon you. Looking at battles primarily makes me think how things could all have gone a lot differently.