Another savory etymology

When Jim at How I See It recently requested an article about the origin of savory, I initially thought he meant the herb, rather than the adjective meaning ‘tasty, flavorful.’ As the previous post dealt with that savory, it seems appropriate to look into the other one. When I delved into the origin of the English noun, I found that it began as Latin saturēia and evolved to Old French sarree. Middle English borrowed that as saverey, which has changed hardly at all on its way to modern English savory. Armed with that knowledge, I thought I might not be able to continue with an article for this column because when I looked up the Spanish name for the herb and found it to be ajedrea, a connection to the English word didn’t seem likely. If anything, ajedrea struck me as coming from Arabic (compare ajedrez). I was right about the Arabic origin: the DRAE traces ajedrea to the Hispanic Arabic forms aššaṭríyya and aššiṭríyya. It turns out, though, that the Arabs had originally taken their word from Latin saturēia, so savory and ajedrea really are cognates, even if sound changes in both lines of development have obscured the relationship.

© 2017 Steven Schwartzman

12 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Jim R
    Dec 01, 2017 @ 15:36:48

    You have dug deeply into this. I’m impressed. And, thanks for the nod to my blog.


  2. Darren
    Dec 01, 2017 @ 16:49:18

    Wow. That was delightful.


  3. Melanie McNeil
    Dec 01, 2017 @ 19:57:59

    My question is why we refer to some foods as sweet and others as savory. For instance, if you are preparing finger foods for a party, you would be advised to make some of them “sweet” and some “savory.” It implies that “savory means “not sweet” in this sense. Any idea how this use came about?


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Dec 02, 2017 @ 08:20:59

      Not being a cook and rarely having looked at cookbooks and recipes, I was surprised when I found some dictionaries making the distinction you mentioned between sweet and savory. I’ve always interpreted savory as applying to any kind of flavorful taste.

      In trying to answer your question, I looked at the Oxford English Dictionary, which is good at giving all the senses of a word, and in the order in which those senses are attested. The first meaning was ‘flavorful, appetizing to the taste, agreeable.’ The second meaning was a figurative one generalized from the first: ‘pleasant, acceptable.’ The third meaning was the one you brought up: ‘used, in contradistinction to sweet, as the epithet of articles of food having a stimulating taste or flavour. The oldest attested example given for that sense was from 1661.

      Then I noticed that the first example given for the first meaning was from 1382, from Wycliff’s English translation of the Bible. In Luke IX, 49, he had this: “Forsoth euery man schal be saltid, or maad sauori, with fier.” In modern spelling that would be: Forsooth, every man shall be salted, or made savory, with fire.” Sometimes we use or to introduce a paraphrase of what came before: he saw a quagga, or subspecies of zebra. Other times we use or to introduce a mutually exclusive choice: should we get together for lunch or for supper? Wycliffe’s or therefore strikes me as ambiguous.

      In any case, from the earliest use of savory in English, there’s a connection to salt, which is inherently opposed to sweet. That still surprises me.


  4. shoreacres
    Dec 03, 2017 @ 19:54:07

    The phrase “salted with fire” brought to mind the practice of some potters, who add salt to their kiln fires. The salt alters the surface of the pot in ways that are unpredictable and uncontrolled.

    I’d be willing to suggest a relationship between the technique of throwing salt into the kiln and using savory herbs. If you put salt into a dish, especially if you put a little too much, the dish is salty. Sugar makes a dish sweet. There’s not much ambiguity. But in a savory dish, the herbs or other ingredients will impart an unpredictable taste, depending on cooking time and temperature, the quality of the ingredients, the nature of their combination, and so on. In short, sweet is sweet, and salty is salty, but savory is more complex.

    That said, I found this historical note, too:

    “The definition of a Savoury Dish has changed over the course of time, and no doubt it will change again in the future. In European cooking from Roman times up to the end of the Renaissance, there was no firm distinction between sweet and savoury, until the development of French cooking which defined sweet ingredients and banished them to the end of a meal. Still, up until the end of the 1700s, it was still not uncommon for sweet foods to be served anytime during a meal.”

    So, what we define as savory may be partly a result of our cultural heritage, or which recipe books we learned from. Every Julia Child article I looked at was firm in its division between savory and sweet, but of course she was the doyen of French cooking, and banished her sweets to the dessert cart.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Dec 03, 2017 @ 20:34:22

      What you say about savory being more complex than sweet or salty certainly seems plausible. At the same time, I gather from some dictionaries that there’s a tradition of savory being slightly salty and in opposition to sweet. I’m clearly out of my element when it comes to cooking and the different kinds of taste, so I’m unqualified to take a position on these things—especially when it seems different people already have different takes. I’m just happy I could track down the origins of both of the unrelated words that have come out as savory in modern English

      English speakers have used the word savory as a translation of Japanese umami. From what I’ve read online, “People taste umami through taste receptors that typically respond to glutamate.” That reminds me of my childhood, when we probably ate at least once a month at the China Sky restaurant. Back then, the Chinese restaurants seasoned their dishes with hefty amounts of monosodium glutamate, and all the food tasted so good. Those were the days.


  5. ProfTomBot
    Apr 15, 2018 @ 16:01:46

    Like albahaca, Spanish and Arabic for basil. Spanish and Arabic have a lot of loan word overlap. Likely due to trade between Arabia and Iberia.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

If you encounter an unfamiliar technical term in any of these postings, check the Glossary in the bar across the top of the page.

©2011–2018 Steven Schwartzman

%d bloggers like this: