A savory etymology

Jim at How I See It recently requested a post about the origin of savory. I was unsure which of the two unrelated English words savory he meant, so I asked. He confirmed that he meant the word that designates one of the subsenses of taste. Western science has only recently added savory—known in Japanese as umami—to the subsenses of sweet, bitter, sour, and salty.* As salty is the English adjective formed from salt, so savory is the adjective made from savor. Here are the definitions of savor given in the grand 1913 Webster’s:

1. That property of a thing which affects the organs of taste or smell; taste and odor; flavor; relish; scent; as, the savor of an orange or a rose; an ill savor. “I smell sweet savors and I feel soft things.” — Shak[espeare].
2. Hence, specific flavor or quality; characteristic property; distinctive temper, tinge, taint, and the like. “Why is not my life a continual joy, and the savor of heaven perpetually upon my spirit? ” — Baxter.
3. Sense of smell; power to scent, or trace by scent.
4. Pleasure; delight; attractiveness. “She shall no savor have therein but lite.” — Chaucer.

Middle English borrowed savour (which is still the British spelling) from Old French, where it had evolved from the synonymous Latin noun sapor that we recognize as the ancestor of the little-changed Spanish sabor ‘taste, flavor.’ Latin sapor came from the root found also in the verb sapere, which meant ‘to taste’ and which had developed from the Indo-European root *sep- ‘to taste, to perceive.’ Even in Roman times, based on the notion that tasting something is one way to learn about it, the Latin verb sapere had added the meanings ‘to have sense or discernment; to be sensible, discreet, prudent, wise,’ and then more generally ‘to know.’ That, of course, is the primary meaning of the important Spanish verb saber.

Corresponding to savory as an English name for the recently accepted fifth subsense of taste, Spanish says sabroso; both languages also use Japanese umami. Curiously, the DRAE gives a colloquial sense of sabroso as ‘ligerament salado,’ which is to say ‘lightly salted.’ I suspect that that meaning developed before the acceptance in the West of umami as a fifth subsense of taste. English has extended the sense of savory to ‘morally exemplary.’ Similarly, its negative, unsavory, has both literal and moral senses.

* For more on that, and to learn about other candidates for subsenses of taste, you’re welcome to read a Live Science article.

© 2017 Steven Schwartzman

17 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Jim R
    Nov 20, 2017 @ 08:31:20

    Thank you, Steve, for this post. Before reading this, I had a feeling that I was missing a word in my vocabulary for a particular taste. Was I unaware of a taste beyond sweet, bitter, sour, and salty? Based on your research, I feel that savory is not a taste at all. It seems more an action of tasting something. It can leave a lingering sense of appeal or it can be unpleasant.

    Well done, sir.


  2. shoreacres
    Nov 20, 2017 @ 08:46:16

    Unlike Jim, I do distinguish savory as a particular taste, and I’m always willing to savor a dish with that quality. Particular flavors that I’d class as savory would include bay leaf, or rosemary, which are quite distinct from sweet, salty, and so on.

    It also occurs to me that I’ve always thought of the experience of savoring something as having duration. To savor an experience is to extend it, either at the time, or in memory.

    On the other hand, I can’t remember ever using — or even coming across — savory as a description of a person. I’ve known a few unsavory characters, of course.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Nov 20, 2017 @ 09:39:14

      I have to ask whether, along with rosemary and bay leaf, you’d include savory in your list of savory seasonings. (Next week I’ll do a post about that other savory, which I alluded to in this post’s second sentence.)

      Your sense that savoring something implies duration accords with mine. We can quickly taste something but I don’t think we can quickly savor something.

      English has other words that we use more often (or at all) in the negative form than in the original un-negated form. Enough of them exist that I started putting them in a list whenever one occurred to me. A few examples are: impeccable, unkempt, and nondescript.


      • Robert Parker
        Nov 20, 2017 @ 12:18:13

        I not sure if cumin falls into the “savory” category – a lot of places use “earthy” to describe it. I’ve tasted sawdust, by accident, but never dirt, so I couldn’t say, but I’m using cumin and tumeric more and more.
        The first term that popped into my head, for “un-negated forms,” turned out to be wrong – – “couth” is a back-formation.


        • Steve Schwartzman
          Nov 20, 2017 @ 20:21:44

          It would take a lot more knowledge about the biology, physics, and chemistry of taste than I have to answer your query about cumin. I don’t believe I ever tasted cumin when I was growing up in New York, but I came to love it, along with tortillas and beans, in Honduras.

          Good for you for introducing the term back-formation here in regard to couth.


  3. whilldtkwriter
    Nov 20, 2017 @ 15:04:24

    Seems m-w considers sweetness does not pertain to savory in one item (http://www.learnersdictionary.com/definition/savory)–“having a spicy or salty quality without being sweet”. I tend to think of savory as a blended word combining salty and flavor. Although savory is not a blended word, it reminds me of my own way that I use the adjective.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Nov 20, 2017 @ 20:15:55

      Thanks for that link. My (admittedly limited) understanding is that savory is the English equivalent of umami, which seems to be entirely separate from salty and spicy and sweet.

      Interesting that your mind processes the word savory as a portmanteau of salty and flavor. You’ve made me wonder whether anyone has used the word flavory; I checked, and sure enough, it’s in some dictionaries.


  4. shoreacres
    Nov 22, 2017 @ 15:17:22

    When I read the word salado, it seemed familiar, but I couldn’t place it. Then, just yesterday, I remembered as I drove across Salado Creek in San Antonio.


  5. Trackback: Another savory etymology | Spanish-English Word Connections

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