What is “nitre?”

WHAT IS “NITRE?”

by Shawn Brasseaux

The word appears two times in the Authorized Version:

  • Proverbs 25:20: “As he that taketh away a garment in cold weather, and as vinegar upon nitre, so is he that singeth songs to an heavy heart.”
  • Jeremiah 2:22: “For though thou wash thee with nitre, and take thee much soap, yet thine iniquity is marked before me, saith the Lord GOD.”

We can make a few cursory remarks using these contexts. Firstly, “nitre” is in connection to something destructive, volatile, and useless. Pairing vinegar and nitre is like removing a garment in cold weather. Mixing vinegar and nitre is equivalent to making light of someone suffering from sadness or depression. Secondly, “nitre” can be used to wash in bathing. (By the way, since British scholars produced the King James Bible, it has the British spelling. In American English, it is “niter.”)

Gesenius’ Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon has the following entry:

“nitre (Gr. nitron, litron), prop. natron of the moderns, fossil alkali, potash (different from [Hebrew] vegetable alkali), which, when mixed with oil, is used even now for soap, Prov. 25:20; Jer. 2:22. It appears to be so called because, when water is poured upon it, it effervesces or ferments.”

Nitre is a mineral—what we call “carbonate of soda,” “sodium bicarbonate,” or “baking soda.” Historically, it is a type of salt. The Egyptians used it as an agent to embalm mummies, wash clothes, and cook (yeast). When mixed with vinegar, it was used to cure a toothache.

Also see:
» What is the “burning ague?”
» What is a “wen?”
» What is the “caul?”

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