Cormac McCarthy’s novel, The Road. This book of fiction, perhaps prophecy, follows several days of the journey of a man and his son over the burned and devastated terrain of our planet.  Their quest is for food.

McCarthy’s use of language is razor-sharp and spare. His words slice cleanly and deeply into the ashen surroundings which the man and boy know are all they will ever know. Occasionally, however, we are able to recognize how very finely honed is the knife of McCarthy’s word-crafting skills, as he reaches into time for that one word that will speak his intent. This paragraph, seven lines of hauntingly fluid evocation of the emptiness the pair must face, describes the man’s walking alone onto a road:

The black shape of it running from dark to dark. Then a distant low rumble. Not thunder. You could feel it under your feet. A sound without cognate and so without description. Something imponderable shifting out there in the dark. The earth itself contracting with the cold. It did not come again. What time of year? What age the child? … The silence. The salitter drying from the earth. The mudstained shapes of flooded cities burned to the waterline. At a crossroads a ground set with dolmen stones where the spoken bones of oracles lay moldering. No sound but the wind.[P220]


Search for the word; it will not be found in dictionaries or in recent literature. Search more, though- this is the reader’s quest for spiritual food- and only when I found it did I know how hungry I had been for it.

Salitter seems only to have occurred, used in this way, in the writings of Jakob Boehme, a 17th century German Christian mystic. Here is enough of what he says about it, to begin to understand the exquisite choice made by McCarthy in using the word:

“What is in Paradise is made of the celestial Salitter..[it] is clear, resplendent..The forces of the celestial Salitter give rise to celestial fruits flowers, and vegetation.” (1.)

Salitter, as used by Boehme, as used by McCarthy, is the essence of God. It is the essence of God which is “drying from the earth” in this apocalyptic novel. It is the end of the Earth for humanity, and also the abandonment of the Earth by what had been divine.

As humans seeking to know, then understand, then communicate, we are all bound by the language we know. Our language is our always-personal set of metaphors which we grasp at, and sometimes are successful in doing so, in order to describe whatever-it-is that we are perceiving that we need to share. Often, we feel frustrated in being able to convey the depths of meaning, or wonder, or urgency about a particular subject because we don’t have the words we want in the repertoire  of words we know. We feel sometimes like the painter who wants to paint a wildflower field, but has only her fingertips and must smear a wildflower field instead. Some things demand a precision in description beyond the impressionistic display of colors.

I have watched ocean tides, purple thistle blossoms, my dogs’ trust, and babies’ laughter. I have heard cicada songs, whispered confessions, Gregorian chants, and the squeaking of bamboo growing. I have held the hands of dying people in my own and tasted tears of both heartache and joy. I have ached to describe the commonalities in all of these things; I have crumpled pages of text in my inability to convey to my own satisfaction,  the relatedness of all things beautiful, the essence of goodness which permeates all that is.

No more.

I will use it very sparingly and with respect for those who probably do not yet know it, but salitter is one of those words which give me great satisfaction. It means what I have wanted some particular word to mean for many years. It is both transcendent and specific and, for some persons, who might want to know exactly what it is I am describing, and whose curiosity will take them beyond the easy sources of definition, salitter will be revelatory.

Then, should that ever happen, I will have been able to pass on the gift given to me by McCarthy.

1. Further definition of the term as used by Boehme may be found here, in Boehme: An Intellectual Biography of the Seventeenth Century Philosopher and Mystic, by Andrew Weeks, SUNY Press, 1991.

~Further gratitude to Miranda McLeod and Joshua Weber 🙂


45 thoughts on “Salitter

  1. is an incredible word, isn’t it? But I have probably just used it 4 of the 7-8 times I will be able to use it the rest of my life!

    Actually, I’m finding it is kind of revelatory to simply tell someone about Salitter..I think many are looking for such a word, but our language is not real accommodating of such thinking..

  2. Thank you for doing the research on this word and also providing an interesting reflection about its uses. I just finished The Road and went looking online for the definition and, like you, was surprised not to find it in dictionaries. Now, how do you pronounce it?

    Who are you? What do you do? There’s no “about” section to your blog.

    Thanks again, Carrie

  3. Awesome, I too just read The Road by Cormac McCarthy (loved it) and was looking for the meaning of this work (passage). Thanks for your hard work!
    Happy New Year

  4. Beautifully written. Thank you. I just finished The Road and was looking up the wonderful words McCarthy used to put in a “sort of” book review on my blog. I find your blog interesting and will come back to explore when I have more time. B.

  5. Thanks for the legwork and great insight! If you didn’t already know, your blog post is now the number one entry that comes up when you google “salitter.” 🙂

  6. Here is the the origin of the word:

    if you read it you will see it refers more to salt-peter.

    If one philologically deconstructs SALITTER there are several etymnological choices of which it is paramount to remember the dialectical conceptual qualities the author avers.

    One can read it thus as: a second wit, a second intelligence, the second coming of knowledge.

    sal/sali/salit can mean salt or it can mean jump [saltate]. thus one can see it as ‘salt of the earth’ or in contradistinction, noting Boehme’s mysticism, to the gnomic that nature never works by leaps [natura non facit saltum]. or even to be read as a shibboleth: ever again. It is interesting to note that words that begin in latin with SAL tend to have alimentary and beneficial connotations. Salitter can mean, in such a interpretation, always saved/safe. This would be condign with the promulgated philosophy as the earth itself, made from absconded elements, are one with the venal, and can only be ‘punished’ by the glorious god.

    truly there is even a play on numbers here as iter can mean again [undefined] or second, and ter can mean third/thrice.

    Boehme goes on to call life the product of a bitter heat.

    [this my personal hermeneutic, having read Aurora by Boehme]

  7. Thank you for your persistence. I was thinking that salitter just meant that salt coming to the surface and drying off, like it does when you swim in the ocean and after you dry, you feel that layer of sand on your skin that only real water seems to take off. However, your definition connects the story to god more, which one of my students told me was me reading too much into the story.
    I am on page 252 now- my third time in The Road, and can’t finish because I can’t watch the father die, again.

  8. Wow, what cr@p. Cormac uses words like HumptyDumpty uses words, to mean what ever he wants them to mean. “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”

    “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

    “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – – that’s all.”

    I guess Cormac wants to be master.

  9. Alan German makes good sense about word usage. As for his criticism, he either thinks there is only one point-of-view, or has trouble letting others play with theirs.

    McCarthy adds just the flash of color his minimalistic style needs by peppering it with these tasty tidbits.

  10. Like others, I found your blog when googling the word. What a beautiful essay you wrote. I’m reminded all over again at how world-changing the internet is (both good and bad) and I thank you for insight and your own skills as a wordsmith.

  11. Informative posts – thank you. I too went to my trusty Webster’s and ended up on Google. Lots to follow up! I loved The Road. I reread it all the time. They were searching for sustenance and shelter, but also for something else – the kind of resilience that says we can’t give up, there must be something more, this can’t be it. That inner fire. The man dies but the boy goes on. The flame isn’t extinguished.(McCarthy is not Ayn Rand!) I think the book awes us so much because it puts into words what we cannot – our relationship to that indescribable ‘what is’ – the heart beat of the universe that goes on even if we (physically) do not…

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  13. Thanks for the def. It has helped me to get further into the book’s meaning. I am teaching the novel to HighSchool students at the moment and they seem to have really enjoyed it so far. For me the book is about faith (in God (or even goodliness) and life’s meaning) in the face of utter despair. I have another forty or so pages to teach and I myself haven’t decided if the book falls on the side of nihilism, faith or indeed, some other side. If anyone would like to give me their view, especially from the faith based side, I would be most grateful.

  14. like others i came here by way of google after finishing the road and looking for a meaning to salitter. so mccarthy is erudite and arcane, that’s okay. a tad joycean and carrollish too (latterly by way of humpty dumpty, with a nod to post 16). and that’s okay too. numinous by any other word a rose that smells sweet still.

    however, given the apocalyptic devastation of the road’s world, that’s all she wrote, folks. trout in a glen’s stream? when gaia is dead? what pocket of shangri la could possibly have escaped? what self-sustaining micro-ecosystem could possible nurture all of the chain necessary for fish? mcarthy wrote himself into a hole, and the final sentences can’t turn a threnody into a psalm. any hope and optimism is the reader’s own. finit.

    • His final paragraph isn’t about the present, dead world. It’s about what once was, and how it was the simple and glorious representation of a world now lost.

      He writes, “Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains.” Once upon a time.

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  16. Like the rest of you I came south to this beach looking for the “cognate” for “salitter” McCarthy sets up as “without cognate”.

    In that paragraph the author sets the only writerly-masturbatory sentence in the whole novel, this pearling excrescence of internal rhyme: “At a crossroads a ground set with dolmen stones where the spoken bones of oracles lay moldering”.

    Except, it’s not (self-indulgent, that is). It’s just an arc of sound, aa going to oh, a cry of incognate pain

    Also, I’ll throw in the suggestion to think of the word ‘psallite’ in the sense of hymning or psalms, that That which is “drying from the earth” (but not yet gone as they still carry “the fire”).

    Finally, though off-topic, I’ll hazard an observation: though the man and the boy, his son, travel the road to live or least die in some right way, the word ‘our’ never appears. Each to the other in third person, and the world to them,
    all loved but all distant.

  17. Positively breathtaking essay. I’m at a loss for words, which is now a feeling I will approach with a much different a less sedentary attitude. Thank you.

  18. This is a really fine reflection on the importance of thinking about the words an author uses — and a reminder for authors to have the courage to use the best word possible in every situation: someone will understand.

  19. ‘The salitter drying from the earth.’ The feeling, ‘What’s left that is worthwhile, wholesome and good?’ And Cormac McCarthy leaves us to use our imagination after spinning his minimalistic, potent word spell, the sign of a brilliant writer, which of course he is. In context, ‘salitter’ is both transcendent and specific, as the author enunciated so well.

  20. Pingback: Cormac McCarthy Reader Uncovers 17th Century Origin of ‘Salitter’ - GalleyCat

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  22. Bless McCarthy as a ‘keeper’ of language. Wittgenstein suggested we were limited by language but within the lexicon of English (cross fertilised with infill from other languages) there is bounty to enrich and extend us yet to be harvested.

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