Chili or pepper?
Now which one, chili or pepper?
There is often a confusion regarding the meaning of these two words and how they relate. Are they synonyms? Are Cayenne pepper and Finger chili the same thing? (They are.)
Let’s throw some light on this mystery. The etymology of “hot plants” is more interesting than it sounds.
Pepper is almost as ambiguous words as crack. It has different meanings and only one of them has to do with chili. If you are looking for a common meaning, our best shot would be “it’s a food that does something intense in your mouth”.
The first definition of pepper refers to the a plant cultivated in India, which is called Piper nigrum, mostly known from its little dried fruits. That’s right, these little black spots used as seasoning are not (only) seeds, but the whole dried fruits. To get the black pepper the fruit is picked while unripe and cooked before drying. The less common red and green versions are not cooked, only dried, the former is picked while completely ripe. White pepper is produced by only using the seed. Black pepper is the largest spice trade article in the world.
The second meaning of the word “pepper” refers to a wider spectrum of plants, known as Piperaceae family. This is where the plant of the black pepper belongs as the most representative member of the group, but definitely not the only one: the family contains more than 3,000 different species. Ironically Peppermint (Mentha piperita) is not one of them.
The third meaning of “pepper” – and we are getting to the point here – refers to completely different group of plants: the Capsicum genus – and above all their hot or sweet fruits. Is this the chili? Yes.
Chilli or Chili or Chile
Chili refers to the cultivated varieties of the Capsicum genus, usually used as condiment. There are many different species of chili, the most common is Capsicum annuum with as representative and distinct members as the Anaheim pepper or the Cayenne pepper. The sweet bell pepper belongs here, too.
There is quite a confusion regarding the spelling of this word. In the UK it’s commonly spelled “chilli” with double L, while in the US chili is the most common spelling, although “chile” is wide-spread in the Southwestern states. It adds up to the maze that a popular dish “chili con carne” is often abbreviated as “chili”. Not to mention the South American country, Chile, but we will return to that later.
So, as of the “chili or pepper” question, in summary we can can state that the two words are interchangeable if the context is clear. However, to avoid confusion, the suggested form is the less ambiguous ”chili pepper”.
Origin of the words
The country Chile is often mistakenly associated with chili pepper, thanks to the Spanish conquerors and their confusing the name of the land with the hot spice. In reality the name of the country is much older than the Spanish colonization and derives from a native word meaning “winter, cold”, quite interestingly coinciding with the English word “chilly”.
The name chili, on the other hand, comes from “xilli” (pepper), a Nahuatl word. Nahuatl is a native American language used mainly on the territory of Mexico and belongs to the Aztecan family.
The word pepper has an even longer history. Its closest form is the Old English pipor but its origins track back through Latin, Greek and Indic words to the Sanskrit word pippali. Sanskrit is the historic language of India and as such it indicates that the “pepper” originally only meant Piper nigrum (black pepper) and not chili peppers as today. It is unknown when and how it acquired this additional meaning.
The word paprika can be tracked back to the same origins as pepper. It refers to a condiment made from a plant that had been imported from the Americas after the colonization. The Italian sausage called pepperoni (popular as pizza topping in the US) also refers to chili pepper as its characteristic ingredient.
So know you know whether it is chili or pepper. Do you also want to learn how to spell chili?