Saturday, August 26, 2017

Spices and herbs, Part 5: Eng. chili (pepper) and Sp. chile/pimiento/ají

[This entry is an excerpt from Chapter 46 ("Spices and herbs") of Part II of the open-source textbook Spanish-English Cognates: An Unconventional Introduction to Spanish Linguistics.]

The English word chili /ˈʧɪ.li/ and its Spanish cognate chile come from Nahuatl chīlli /ˈʧ These words refer to the fruit of several species of plants from the Capsicum genus, from the nightshade family (Solanaceae). This name is unrelated to the name of the country of Chile, a name that the Spanish borrowed from the Incas, whose origin is unknown, although theories abound about where the country name might have come from.[i]

In some dialects of English, the word pepper is omitted from the name and in others it is not. Chili peppers originated in the Americas, namely in Mexico, Central America, and northern South America. From there, Europeans took them to Asia and Europe, where they became very popular. Chilis were among the fastest American plants to be adopted by Europeans, both for cooking and for curing meats. Other popular imports from the Americas were, of course, tomatoes and potatoes.

Figure 138: Three types of chilis:
Green bird’s eye, yellow Madame Jeanette, and red Cayenne peppers[ii]

The main species of the Capsicum genus that the word chili can be used for are the following:
  • Capsicum annuum: there are many varieties, e.g. bell peppers, cayenne, jalapeños
  • Capsicum frutescens: includes malagueta and tabasco
  • Capsicum chinense: it includes the hottest peppers such as habanero
  • Capsicum pubescens: it includes the South American rocoto peppers (Sp. rocoto)
  • Capsicum baccatum: it includes the South American aji peppers (Sp. ají amarilloají limon, and criolla sella)
Because the name chili or pepper applies to many plant species of this genus, each of which may have quite different varieties or cultivars (see below), the actual use of the word chili varies quite a bit from one place to another and its use may depend also on context and personal experience. Also, in English, this word competes with, or sometimes combines with, the word pepper, as in chili pepper. The word pepper in English refers to two very different things: the condiment usually known as black pepper and the various types of peppers (bell peppers and chilis), some of which are hot and some of which are not. (Black pepper, known as pimienta in Spanish, will be discussed in §46.3.22 below.)

In Spanish too, or at least in some dialects of Spanish, the name for these two very different things is almost the same, pimienta in the case of black pepper and pimiento for chili peppers. The reason for this is that when the Spanish first found pungent chilis in the Americas which could be used as the basis for condiments, they named the plants after their name for black pepper, namely pimienta. This, by the way, was one of the major spices that Columbus was after when he set off for the Indies, where black pepper originated. In Spain, to this day, the generic name for chilis is (masculine) pimiento, not chile, which is very similar to the name for black pepper, namely (feminine) pimienta

The word pimienta 'black pepper' is not derived from the Latin word for black pepper, which was piper, the source of Eng. pepper, as we shall see. In Latin, pĭgmĕnta was a generic name for condiments, and in Spanish it came to refer just to black pepper, perhaps the second most common condiment, after salt. Sp. pimienta is derived from Lat. pĭgmĕnta, plural of pĭgmĕntum ‘coloring (matter), dye, pigment, tint, paint’, which in Latin also came to have the sense of ‘drug, ingredient’ and, later on, as we said, ‘condiment’. 

English pigment and its Spanish cognate pigmento are learned words (loanwords) derived from the same Latin source. The latter is a learned doublet of Sp. pimiento, the word for ‘chili pepper’ in Spain. Lat. pĭgmĕntum is derived from the third conjugation verb pingĕre ‘to color, paint’ and the noun-forming suffix ‑ment‑(um) (ping‑+‑ment‑+‑um). (The principal parts of the verb pingĕre were present pingo, present infinitive pingĕre, perfect active pinxī, supine pictum.) The verbs Eng. to paint and its Spanish cognate pintar come ultimately from a Vulgar Latin *pinctāre, a modification of Lat. pictāre, the frequentative version of Lat. pingĕre formed with the supine stem pict‑. From the supine stem pict‑ we also get cognates such as picture ~ pintura, which are semi-false friends.

Eng. pepper /ˈpɛ.pəɹ/ a very early loanword into Germanic from Latin, from before the period of Old English, from when all Germanic peoples lived on the continent and were neighbors of the Roman Empire. The Romans got the word piper from Ancient Greek πέπερι (péperi), a word which was also a loanword, from an Indo-Arian source, cf. Sanskrit पिप्पलि ‎(pippali) ‘long pepper’. This word pepper, of course, referred originally to peppercorns, used whole or ground into powder, not to the chilis, which, as we just saw, were thus named after Columbus by an ill-fated analogy. In many varieties of English, the word pepper is now used for both bell peppers and chilis, as well as for black pepper. There are many regional peculiarities, however, as to what these different plants are called. Thus, for example, in parts of the American Midwest, bell peppers are called mangoes. Using the same word pepper for two such different things is, no doubt, a result of calquing what the Spanish did with pimienta/pimiento.

By the way, the word pimiento, or pimento, exists in English as an alternate name for cherry peppers, which are a variety of large, red, heart-shaped chili pepper, from the same family (Capsicum annuum). Sweet pimiento peppers are the stuffing of what in the US is known as stuffed Spanish green olives.

In the Spanish-speaking Americas, members of the Capsicum genus are not called pimientos, like in Spain. They go by different names, depending on the region.[iii] One of them is chile, as we have seen, from Nahuatl chīlli, which is used in Mexico and Central America. In Nicaragua, the word chiltoma is used for any type of sweet pepper (green or red). The exact source of this word is not known, though it may be a blend of Nahuatl chīlli ‘chili, pepper’ and tomatl ‘tomatillo’ (the source of Eng. tomato and Sp. tomate).

In the Caribbean, the more common word is ají, from the Taíno word haxí, though in Cuba, for instance, chile is also used for a variety of chili. In the Andean region, other words are used as well, such as utsu or uchu, from Quechua, or wayk’a from Aimara. In Spain, as we said, chilis are called pimientos, though actually, in some contexts the word pimiento is reserved for the sweet (not hot) varieties and guindilla is preferred for the small hot ones. The word guindilla is a diminutive of the word guinda, which is the name of a sour cherry, or morello cherry, a name of uncertain origin. The guindilla is also known as also known as pimiento de cerecilla o pimiento de las Indias.

In Spain, there are some common types of peppers in addition to guindilla. One is pimiento de Padrón, a variety with small, green and long fruit. Padrón is the name of a parish in the province of A Coruña, in Galicia. An interesting characteristic of these peppers is that some of them are hotter than others (though none are very hot). There is a popular saying that goes los pimientos de Padrón, unos pican y otros no(n) ‘pimientos de padrón, some are hot and some are not’ (in Galego: uns pican e outros non).

While on the topic of hot vs. sweet peppers, we should mention that what makes a chili hot is the chemical capsaicin, which is concentrated in the inner white fibers of the pepper and in the coat of the seeds. The word capsaicin—an alteration of capsicine, a related chemical—is a modern chemical name derived from the New Latin word Capsicum that French botanist Joseph Pitton de Tournefort (1656-1708) created as the name for the genus of pepper plants.[1]

The amount of ‘heat’ a pepper has depends in great part on its genetic make-up. Thus, for instance, habanero chilis are much hotter than poblano chiles, which are mild. Environmental conditions such as temperature, drought conditions, and ripeness of the pepper also influence a pepper’s hotness. By the way, the use of the word hot to refer to a taste that is pungent, acrid, or biting dates back to the 1540s. It is a sense that is not shared by the Spanish word that translates the main sense of hot, the high temperature sense, namely caliente. The biting sense translates into Spanish as picante, an adjective derived from the highly polysemous verb picar, some of whose meanings are ‘to bite’ (for insects such as mosquitos), to sting’ (for insects such as bees), ‘to punch’ (a hole in a piece of paper), ‘to chop finely’ (food), ‘to goad’ (a bull), ‘to itch’, ‘to be hot’, ‘to decay, go bad’ (a tooth), ‘to go vinegary’ (wine), and a few more.

Another popular Spanish chili pepper type is pimiento de(l) piquillo, which is red and triangular. These peppers come from Lodosa in Navarre. Most are typically roasted over embers and then canned. The word piquillo means ‘little beak’, referring to the shape of the pepper.

Finally, we have pimiento morrón, which is the typical name in Spain for any sweet bell pepper, though it is also known as pimiento de bonetepimiento choricero, or pimiento de hocico de buey. These are the sweetest and meatiest of peppers and they come in different colors, as we have seen: red, green, and yellow. The word morrón is derived from the noun morro ‘mouth, snout, chops, nose (of a car), etc’ and the name pimiento morrón refers to the bulging shape of the pepper.

There are several words in Mexican Spanish derived from the word chile, such as chilar ‘chili patch’, and many referring to foods made with chili: chilaquil, chilaquila, chilate, chilatole, chilchote, chilero, chilmole, chiltipiquín or chilepiquín (Corominas). Another one is chipotle, from the Nahuatl word chilpoctli, meaning ‘smoked chili’, which is a smoke-dried jalapeño pepper used in Mexican cuisine.[iv] This word is also the name of a chain of Mexican restaurants in the United States: Chipotle Mexican Grill.[v] 

Figure 139: Smoke-dried chipotles.[vi]

There is also a derived verb enchilar (en-chil-ar), which means ‘to season with chile’ and, metaphorically, 'to annoy'. In Mexico and parts of Central America, the reflexive verb enchilarse means literally ‘to get a hot, burning sensation’ as well as, metaphorically, ‘to get angry’.

The adjective enchilado/a 'seasoned with chili' is derived from the past-participle of this verb. The feminine form of this adjective, enchilada, has become the name for a typical Mexican food which has also become popular in the United States. The word enchilada entered English in the late 1800’s with the meaning of ‘tortilla rolled and stuffed usually with a mixture containing meat or cheese and served with a sauce spiced with chili’ (AHD). 

Chili can be dried and made into powder, namely chili powder. This powder, sometimes mixed with chopped chili peppers, can be made into chili sauce. The word chili is used in English in some parts of the US South for a popular dish known in Spanish (and in English as well) as chile con carne, literally ‘chili with meat’, ‘a spicy stew containing chili peppers, meat (usually beef), and often tomatoes and beans’ (Wikipedia).[vii]

Figure 140: Pot of chile con carne[viii]

Another name for powdered pepper in English is paprika, usually pronounced [pə.ˈpɹi.kə]. This is ‘a red powder made from a type of sweet pepper, used for giving a slightly hot taste to meat and other food’ (DOCE). This word is a late 19th century loan from Hungarian paprika, a diminutive from Serbo-Croatian papar ‘pepper’, ultimately either from Latin piper or from Greek piperi. This type of powered pepper is very common in these regions.

The equivalent of Eng. paprika in Spanish is pimentón, a word that is derived from pimiento, of which it is an augmentative. The words ají de color and páprika are also used for the same spice in some regions. Traditionally, in Spanish cuisine, there are two main types of pimentón: pimentón dulce, literally ‘sweet paprika’, which is not hot/spicy, and pimentón picante, which is hot/spicy. Pimentón is an important ingredient of many Spanish dishes (from Spain), such as patatas a la riojana ‘Rioja potatoes’, pulpo a la gallega ‘Galician octupus’, sobrasada ‘spicy Majorcan pork sausage’, and chorizo, a highly-seasoned pork sausage, and other types of processed cold meats or cold cuts (Sp.embutidos). In some parts of Spanish America, the word pimentón refers to sweet peppers, however, as in Venezuela, so to the extent that Spanish paprika is known there, it is often called pimentón de España. Other names that are used for paprika in Spanish America are ají de color and ají panca. (For more on paprika, see §46.3.7 below.)

In the list of pepper varieties of the genus Capsicum that we saw earlier, we find several that are derived from place names. One of them is cayenne (pepper) /ˌkeɪ̯.ˈɛn/, a type of chili from the species Capsicum annuum.[ix] Other varieties of this same species are bell peppers, jalapeños, and paprika. The fruit of this plant is ‘dried and ground, or pulped and baked into cakes, which are then ground and sifted to make the powdered spice of the same name’ (Wikipedia). Cayenne pepper also goes by the name of red hot chili pepper or, in powder form, just as red pepper (among other names). It is named after the city of Cayenne in French Guiana. In Spanish, the name for this variety also varies from place to place. The most common ones are pimienta roja, pimienta de Cayena, cayena, merkén, chile en polvo, or ají en polvo.

Figure 141: A large cayenne pepper[x]

Another chili  whose name derives from a placename is jalapeño, which refers to ‘a cultivar of the tropical pepper Capsicum annuum having a very pungent green or red fruit’ (AHD).[xi] The word jalapeño entered English from Mexican Spanish in the mid-20th century. In Spanish jalapeño is a demonym, a name for people or things from a place, in this case from Xalapa (also written Jalapa), which is the capital of the Mexican state of Veracruz. But jalapeño is also short for, or a clipping of, chile jalapeño, that is, chile from Jalapa (older Xalapa; this Jalapa is a town of the state of Veracruz, though there are other towns with that name in Tabasco, Chiapas, Oaxaca, Guatemala and Nicaragua).

Figure 142: Immature jalapeno (Capsicum annuum var. annuum)[xii]

In the definition of jalapeño above, the word cultivar /ˈkʌl.tɪ.ˌvaɹ/ was mentioned. It refers to ‘a plant variety that has been produced in cultivation by selective breeding’ (COED), one which is not different enough from other varieties to be its own species. The word cultivar was created, in English, in the 1920’s as a blend of the words cultivate and variety (cultivate-variety). This word is, of course, a homograph of the Spanish verb cultivar /kul.t̪i.ˈbaɾ/ ‘to cultivate’. Eng. cultivar has been borrowed into Spanish in recent times, where it is used as a technical term with the same meaning as the English one.

Another type of pepper derived from a place name is habanero, which refers to ‘a cultivar of the tropical pepper Capsicum chinense having small, round, extremely hot green to red fruit’ (AHD). The word habanero is a demonym for people and things from Havana, La Habana in Spanish, the capital and main city of Cuba.[xiii]

Figure 143: Habanero[xiv]

Yet another type of pepper named after a place name, or demonym, is the tabasco pepper, which is of the species Capsicum frutescens, var. tabasco, originally from the state of Tabasco in southern Mexico.[xv] In the United States, the name Tabasco is associated with a hot sauce made from these chilis and peppered vinegar produced by the McIlhenny Company of Avery Island, Louisiana.[xvi] The Spanish name for this chili is chile tabasco.

Figure 144: Tabasco peppers[xvii]

[ii] Source: “Madame Jeanette and other chillies” by Takeaway - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons -
[iii] Cf.
[1] How Pitton came up with this name is not totally clear. According to the OED, ‘Linnæus explained it from Gr. κπτειν ‘to bite’ (rather ‘to gulp down’); but it is generally referred to Lat. capsa ‘case, box’, as if named from the pods’.
[vi] Source: “Chipotlestipicos” by Badagnani - Own work. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -
[viii] Source: “Pot-o-chili” by FiveRings at English Wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -
[x] Source: “Large Cayenne” by André Karwath aka Aka - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons -
[xii] Source: Immature jalapeño pepper (Capsicum annuum var. annuum). From, originally uploaded 02:05, 2. Jul 2005 by de:User:TilmanBaumann, being his own GFDL-licensed work. (2015.11.03)
[xiv] Source: “Habanero closeup edit2”. The original uploader was Fir0002 at English Wikipedia - Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by Sreejithk2000 using CommonsHelper. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Commons - (2015.11.03)
[xvii] Source: “Tabasco peppers”. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons -

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