Don’t cut back on “salt intake,” eliminate it

A few years ago, I wrote a pair of responses following a wave of online alarms about “salt intake.” In the first, my criticism was strictly linguistic. “Salt intake” is an awful, abominable phrase, and I had simply had enough of seeing it. Happily, the interweb’s obsession with this allegedly dire peril seems to have dropped away, but recently Sarah Kliff over at Vox provided it a bump. Ms. Kliff’s coverage of health care reform has been absolutely brilliant, these past years, and her look at the terrible menace of salt also achieves some admirable progress. I applaud her story’s headline, “we’re eating too much salt,” at least linguistically. You have to go four paragraphs in before any reference to “salt intake.”

That said, Kliff still resorts to this syntactical disgrace several times; once, in the alt-form of “sodium intake,” even in a subheading. Thus I shall continue my long-term archiving project by re-publishing the following, originally written in February 2010:

Salt is back in the news again. Perhaps the depths of winter have placed salt on many people’s minds; in much of the country, at least, it’s already on the road (and the sidewalk, and the hall carpet, and the car) after all. In any event, we’ve just had yet another blast of warnings about the dangers of salt on our plate, this time prompted by newly-updated federal dietary guidelines.

I plan to address the merits of the assault on salt, itself, in a future post. First, though, I want to raise a much more urgent concern about the directive to Americans “to drastically cut their daily salt intake.”

That being the appalling use of this atrocity of a word, “intake.”

For some time now, I’ve noticed that it seems impossible to publish an article about Americans’ diet and salt without repeatedly using this grotesque perversion of language. But I’m declaring “enough.” Finis, no mas. Banish the word “intake” from your vocabularies, writers, at least when talking about human beings.

For god’s sake, what an awful, awful word to apply to the activity of a living, thinking person. “Salt intake?” This sounds like part of a car engine; like some sort of purely impersonal, involuntary mechanized process, rather than what it’s actually referring to in these articles.

Which is, simply, “eating salt.” Unless one is hooked up to a saline-drip IV, one “takes in” salt by eating it. Even if most salt eaten by Americans is “in foods” (and where else would it be, pray tell?) the relevant process is that of people eating. An active process performed by living beings, rather than a passive process which happens to something. Try using language appropriate to this reality.

This doesn’t seem like it should be so hard, if one simply chooses to remember that one is writing about people rather than about mechanical systems. My formal studies of journalism amount to something like 12 whole credits, only three of them from an actual writing course, and I can write this story without resorting to “intake.”

“to drastically cut their daily salt intake” to eat less salt

“reduce daily sodium intake to little more than half a teaspoon” eat less than one teaspoon of salt per day

“Most salt intake” Most of the salt we eat

“high sodium intake” high-in-salt diets

“reduce sodium intake” eat less salt

As an absolute last resort, if the verb “eat” just won’t do, write about salt “consumption;” at least this still describes something which people actually do. It’s reasonable to write about people “consuming” food. It is not reasonable to write about people’s food “intake.”

Weeping Jesus on the cross; pleaseplease, stop using this godawful dehumanizing abomination of a word. If my “intake” of such abuse of the language continues, I think it may kill me even faster than all the salty fries in the world.

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