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One of the words English uses to describe food is this word called "savory":

From dictionary to dictionary, the definitions found are something like this:

  1. pleasing to the taste or smell; appetizing
  2. pleasant, agreeable, attractive, etc.
  3. morally acceptable; respectable
  4. salty or piquant; not sweet

but the one above is specifically from the Collins online English dictionary.

I find the dictionary definitions a bit flat in comparison to how this word is actually used, so maybe that's part of the problem, but the Russian translations I've found thus far, at least to me, don't quite capture what this words means to English speakers. The first translation I found was this:

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but I immediately took a disliking to this equivalent (несладкий / несладок) because it seems to me like a word that focuses more on the absence of sweetness rather than something that is both "not sweet" but also "tasty" and "delicious," (but not necessarily "spicy").

I suppose I could just get used to using two words to match the meaning I have when I use the word "savory," but anything paired with the flavorless description "not sweet" falls short.

I should add that I did also see a translation of this as "острый" (spicy) and "солёный" (salty), but these words alone don't quite capture the full meaning of "savory" to me either.

Is there a way to fully capture the English word "savory" in Russian or is this just something that really doesn't have a one-to-one equivalent?

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  • 4
    I don't think it has a direct equivalent, as usual, the translation depends on context. Would you give an example context that you are trying to translate and explain what exact meaning do you expect?
    – Petr
    Oct 27 '21 at 4:35
  • 1
    "пряный" might work in some contexts, though it isn't a direct translation
    – permeakra
    Nov 2 '21 at 12:55
  • @permeakra although пряник means a sweet cake.
    – Anixx
    Nov 11 '21 at 19:02
  • I think, the closest is пикантный (piquant).
    – Anixx
    Nov 11 '21 at 19:13
  • 1."pleasing to the taste or smell; appetizing, pleasant," - пикантный ? аппетитный :) 2. " pleasant, agreeable, attractive, etc" - приятный. 3."morally acceptable; respectable" as boring and grey - пресный :> 4."salty or piquant;" - солёный, пикантный, ядрёный? :> etym."savory (adj.) "pleasing in taste or smell," c. 1200, from Old French savore "tasty, flavorsome"... - ароматный... Nov 14 '21 at 23:16
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I'll concentrate on the direct and literal meaning of the word, which relates to taste. For some reason it is listed #4 in your list, but we all know this is the actual literal meaning of the word, even if other meanings became more common. (Cambridge agrees with that).

The fundamental meaning is "not sweet", yet still tasty, not bland.

Well, there is no such word in Russian. You can only say "несладкий" or fall back to some more specific tastes such as "солёный".

The opposition to "сладкий" is deeply cultural. At different points in time and in different contexts it could be "солёный" or "кислый". But in truth, sweet is a fundamental taste, which is orthogonal to others. It's just considered most "incompatible" with salty, but not universally. Apparently, this opposition was not important enough in Russia to invent a special word for it.

But compare it to "солёный", which is another fundamental taste, and historically more important in Russia. It has an antonym "пресный", which is lacking in English. (You can say "bland", but it has broader meaning "not tasty"). The opposite to salty sea water would be пресная вода, but in many other cultures it will be "sweet water" (e.g. Dutch) or "fresh water", even though neither sweetness nor freshness has literally anything to do with the lack of salt.

This hints at the fact that "сладкий" is generally stronger than "sweet". There are many things that other cultures would call "sweet" (like that water, or, say, beans) that would never be called сладкие in Russian. Consequently, "несладкий" is more "normal" and neutral. You might dislike it, but we'll dislike your attempts to find an equivalent to пресный in return :)

Where does it leave us? As usual, you'll need to find the most appropriate translation depending on the circumstances. If it's savoury crêpes, you can say "несладкие блины". Savoury soup will more likely be кислый. (Some of the suggested replacements such as "сытный" or "пикантный" are very specific and should be used only when appropriate). If it's something figurative, you'll use something like приятный, подходящий, etc.

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  • I loved your answer, Zeus. It was cheeky, but polite and informative all at once and in a way that few could answer so well without having lived in Russia, taught the Russian language, and/or studied the language for a rather long time. Спасибо огромное!
    – Lisa Beck
    Nov 9 '21 at 0:39
  • I think пресный and fresh are cognates, from PIE *preysknos
    – Anixx
    Nov 11 '21 at 19:05
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Is there a way to fully capture the English word "savory" in Russian or is this just something that really doesn't have a one-to-one equivalent?

I don't think there's a Russian equivalent for this word which would capture all its meanings.

If we were to translate the sentence "is this pastry sweet or savory", then the closest (but not quite exact) Russian analog would be сытный (literally, "nourishing"):

Эта выпечка сладкая или сытная?

As a standalone word, it does not mean the same thing that "savory" does as a standalone word, but it is not a bad translation for this type of usage and context.

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  • You deleted the answer that had all the comments I felt really added to the question and might come up in a future search for someone else! Oh, well. Thank you for taking the time to answer.
    – Lisa Beck
    Oct 27 '21 at 21:51
  • @LisaBeck: the author of the answer deleted it, not me. Comments on this site are meant to be transient suggestions for improvement. If you feel they're adding to the question, the best way would be editing the question. Thanks!
    – Quassnoi
    Oct 27 '21 at 22:31
  • I guess I must have thought you were the author of the answer. Whatever. I'm over it. And while I appreciate your suggestion, I may, if no better answer surfaces, answer my own question with some of the things I found. Again, спасибо!
    – Lisa Beck
    Nov 9 '21 at 0:34
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in Russian, there is a word «пряный» that is often translated as «spicy», but «пряный» not necessarily means «hot», it is rather «rich in taste», enriched with herbs, marinade, sauce, spices etc.

Plain boiled potatoes versus crispy garlic roasted potatoes with herbs of Provence, the latter can be referred to as «пряный».

In some context, «savory» might be translated as «пряный», I think.

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Probably "пикантный" is the most suitable variant. It means "tasty, not sweet, salty, spicy".

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As I understand word "savory", it means "острая закуска", "острый" means both sharp speaking of a physical object and spicy taste, закуска is word for snack.

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