Saturday, August 26, 2017

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

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

Go to the listing of entries on spices, herbs and other condiments

Eng. chili (pepper) and Sp. chile/pimiento/ají

The English word chili [ˈʧɪ.li] (chilli in British English) and its Spanish cognate chile [ˈʧi.le]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 and whose origin is unknown, although theories abound about where the country name might have come from.

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 the northern part of South America. From there, Europeans took them to Asia and Europe, where they became very popular. Chilies were among the fastest American plants to be adopted by Europeans, both for cooking and for curing meats. Other popular imports from the Americas that did not exist in Europe before 1492 were, of course, tomatoes, potatoes, beans, maize (corn), sunflowers, squash, and peanuts.
Figure 170: Three types of chilies: Green bird’s eye, yellow Madame Jeanette, and red Cayenne peppers[i]

Capsicum is the name given to the chili’s taxonomic genus, which is part of the Solanaceae or nightshades family of flowering plants (Sp. solanáceas). The word Capsicum is a New Latin creation derived from Lat. capsa ‘box’, meaning something like ‘box-like’ or ‘boxy’, presumably after the plants’ shape. (Lat. capsa is the source of patrimonial Spanish caja ‘box’.) Chilies hybridize easily and thus, there are many varieties for each species. Also, some varieties can go by different names in different locations. For example, the very hot chili pequin goes by different names in different countries and regions in Mexico and Central America:  chile piquín, chile amashito, chile pequín, chile petín, chiltepe (Guatemala), chile congo (Nicaragua and northern Costa Rica), chile de monte or del monte, chile mosquito, among others.[i]

There are four main species of the Capsicum genus, each of which comes in many different varieties or cultivars. The main species is Capsicum annuum, the most common and widespread species. It  includes many varieties of different shapes and sizes, hot and mild. It includes the classical bell pepper, which is not typically considered a chili in English (Sp. pimiento, ají morrón, chile morrón, chile dulce, chiltoma, pimiento morrón, pimentón).

The Capsicum annum species also includes a number of popular chilis, many of which, but not all, are hot (pungent) to some degree or other: cayenne (pepper) (Sp. (pimienta de) cayena), jalapeños (Sp. chile jalapeño, though when dried and smoked is known as chile chipotle, from Nahuatl chilpoctli ‘smoked chili’), pequin (Sp. piquín, etc.), serrano pepper (Sp. chile serrano or chile verde), mirasol chili (Sp. chile mirasol, though when dried it is known as chile guajillo), pasilla chili (wrinkled like a raisin, Sp. pasa; Sp. chile pasilla or chile negro), poblano or ancho (Mexico’s favorite pepper, from Puebla; Sp. chile poblano or (chile) ancho, when ripened to red and dried).

These chilies can be eaten fresh, added to food in cooking, or made into sauces. In powder form, these are the source of popular spices, such as cayenne, chili, and paprika powders (see §47.3.8 below). The annuum part of the species name is Latin for ‘of the years’ since it is the genitive plural  of the word annus ‘year’ (source of Sp. año ‘year’); the name is a misnomer, since this is not an annual plant; in the absence of frost, it can grow to be a large shrubby perennial.

The second common species of chile is Capsicum frutescens. Fruits from this species do not typically have chili in the English name, but rather pepper. It includes the varieties malagueta pepper, which is very common in Brazil and all Portuguese-speaking countries, tabasco pepper (from the Mexican state of Tabasco; Sp. chile tabasco),[1] bird’s eye chili (or cabai rawit; from Ethiopia and Southeast Asia), and piri piri (from southeastern Africa, derived from malagueta). It is interesting that some do not consider Capsicum frutescens to be a separate species from Capsicum annuum. By the way, the frutescens part of the species name is a New Latin word that means ‘shrub-like’. This word comes from the present participle of a non-existing verb *frutēscĕre derived from Lat. frŭtex ‘shrub, bush’ (genitive: frŭtĭcis). These plants can be annual or short-lived perennials. Finally, varieties of this species are not as different from each other as those of Capsicum annuum.

Capsicum chinense is the third main species of the Capsicum genus, which is less varied. This type of chili is also known as bonnet pepper because of its shape. The hottest peppers are from this species, such as the habanero, which is the most common variety (Sp. chile habanero, named after La Habana, the capital of Cuba, though it is typical of different Mexican regions, such as Campeche, Quintana Roo, and Yucatan). Two other chilis from this family cultivated in both Mexico and Peru are ají panca y ají limo (same names in English as in Spanish). Other names for the same or similar members of this species are chile congo, chocolate, chile porrón, ají chombo, and bondamanjak (in Reunion). The word chinense in the name meaning ‘Chinese’ and it is the nominative neuter singular form of the New Latin adjective chinēnsis ‘Chinese’, a word that did not exist in Classical Latin. This name is also a misnomer since the pepper originated in the Americas, not in China, as the person who named the species in 1776 thought. It is actually native to Central America, the Yucatan region, and the Caribbean islands.

The species Capsicum pubescens is originally from the Peru region, though it is now grown in the whole Andean region and even further north, all the way to Mexico. This species includes the famous South American rocoto peppers (Sp. rocoto) of Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia and Argentina, known in Mexico as chile de cera or chile manzano, because of its surface and its shape, respectively. Other Spanish names are morrongo, perón, and ciruelo (from Sp. ciruela ‘plum’). The word pubescens in the species name was meant to mean ‘hairy’, due to the plant’s hairy leaves. This word comes from Lat. pūbēscēns, present participle of the verb pūbēscĕre ‘to ripen, mature’, ‘to reach puberty, become pubescent’ and, derived from it ‘grow body hair’.[2]

Finally, the species Capsicum baccatum is originally from the Andes region, where the chili peppers are known as ají in Spanish, a word that comes from Taino and was first documented in 1493 in what is now Haiti. Varieties of this chili tend to be very hot. It includes among its varieties (cultivars) the South American aji peppers, in particular ají amarilloají limón (Eng. lemon drop), and criolla sella, among others. The variety pendulum is the most common one in Chile, Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador. It is commonly made into a sauce, known just as ají or ají sauce (Sp. ají, salsa de ají). As for the word baccatum of the species name, it seems to be the neuter form of the adjective baccatus that means ‘producing or bearing berries’ and ‘berry-like or pulpy’, since it is derived from bacca ‘berry, fruit; pearl’ (= bāca).[3]

In English, the names chili and pepper can be applied to the many plant species of the Capsicum 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 in the English-speaking world and the use of one over the other may depend also on context and personal experience and this word competes with, or sometimes combines with, the word pepper, as in chili pepper. Remember, however, that the word pepper in English refers to two very different things: the condiment usually known as black pepper and the various types of fruits of the Capsicum genus, sweet bell peppers and chilies, some of which are hot and some of which are not. (Black pepper, known as pimiento in Spanish, will be discussed in §47.3.22 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 chilies 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 chilies is pimiento, which is very similar to the name for black pepper, namely pimienta. In Spanish America, the words chile and ají predominate, depending on the country or region.

The Spanish 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. Rather, it comes from Latin pĭgmĕnta, which was a generic name for condiments. In Spanish, however, it came to refer just to black pepper, the second most common condiment, after salt. Lat. pĭgmĕnta was not a feminine word but rather the plural of pĭgmĕntum, a neuter second-declension noun that meant primarily ‘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’ when used in the plural. English pigment and its Spanish cognate pigmento are learned words (loanwords) derived from the very same Latin source. In other words, Sp. pigmento 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 Vulgar Latin version *pinct‑ of the supine stem pict‑.[3] Other words were derived from the supine stem pict‑, from which we get words such as Eng. picture (Sp. pintura) and picturesque (Sp. pintoresco).

Eng. pepper [ˈpɛ.pəɹ] a very early borrowing into Germanic from Latin, from the period before Old English, when all Germanic peoples lived on the continent and were neighbors of the Roman Empire. The Romans got the word pĭper (genitive wordform: pĭpĕris) 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 only to peppercorns, used whole or ground into powder, not to the chilies, which, as we just saw, were named in English by condiment analogy after the Spanish brought them back to Europe from the Americas. In many varieties of English, the word pepper is now used for both bell peppers and chilies 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, though Spanish at least changed the inflectional ending and gender.

By the way, the word pimiento, or pimento, exists in English and it is a borrowing from Spanish (and/or Portuguese). It is 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. Actually, over the years and in different places, the word pimento has also been used in English for allspice and the allspice tree, among other things.

In the Spanish-speaking Americas, however, members of the Capsicum genus are not called pimientos, like in Spain. They go by different names, depending on the region. 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 Taino word haxí, though in Cuba, for instance, chile is also used for a variety of chili. In the Andean region, ají is also used, as we have seen for some varieties of chili, though other words are used as well, such as utsu or uchu, from Quechua, or wayk’a from Aymara (Sp. aimara). In Spain, as we said, chilies 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, red hot ones. The word guindilla is a diminutive of the word guinda, which is the name of a sour cherry or Morello cherry (a sour cherry cultivar), a name of uncertain origin. The guindilla is also known as also known as pimiento de cerecilla (cerecilla is a diminutive of cereza ‘cherry’) or 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 in Spain that goes: Los pimientos de Padrón, unos pican y otros no’ ‘pimientos de padrón, some are hot and some (lit. others) are not’ (in Galego: Os pementos de Padrón, uns pican e outros non). What makes this interesting is that when one bites into a Padrón pepper, one never knows whether it is going to be hot or not.

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.[4] Capsaicin, however, is only one of the pungent compounds found in chili peppers, though it is the main one. Collectively, they are called capsaicinoids.

The amount of ‘heat’ a pepper has depends in great part on its genetic make-up. Thus, for instance, habanero chilies are much hotter than poblano chilies, 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 in English 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.

The pungency (spiciness or heat) (Sp. picor) of chili peppers and other spicy foods depends on the capsaicin concentration and it is usually measured by the Scoville scale (Sp. escala Scoville). This scale is named in 1912 after its inventor, Wilbur Scoville. The pungency units go from zero for bell peppers to 3.2 million for the hottest of Capsicum chili peppers.

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, there is pimiento morrón, which is the typical name in Spain for any sweet bell pepper, though it is also known as pimiento de bonete, pimiento 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.[ii] This word is also the name of a chain of Mexican restaurants in the United States: Chipotle Mexican Grill.[iii]

Figure 171: Smoke-dried chipotles.[iv]

There is also a derived verb enchilar (en-chil-ar) in Mexican Spanish, 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 the verb enchilar. 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).[v]

Figure 172: Pot of chile con carne[vi]

Another name for powdered pepper in English is paprika, usually pronounced [pə.ˈpʰɹi.kə], though the pronunciation [ˈpʰa.pɹɪ.kə] is also heard, particularly in Britain. 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. For more on paprika and powdered chile, see §47.3.8 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. 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 is the main town of French Guiana (founded 1634). It seems, however, that this name is a false or popular etymology. In other words, the original name of the pepper in an indigenous language happened to sound like the name of the town and thus the pepper came to be named after the town (OED). Cayenne pepper also goes by the name of red hot chili pepper or, in powder form, as just red pepper (among other names). 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 or, when powdered, chile en polvo, or ají en polvo.
Figure 173: A large cayenne pepper[vii]

Another chile whose name derives from a place name is jalapeño, which refers to ‘a cultivar of the tropical pepper Capsicum annuum having a very pungent green or red fruit’ (AHD).[viii] The word jalapeño entered English from Mexican Spanish in the mid-20th century. In Spanish jalapeño is a demonym, a name derived from a place name, from a place, in this case from Xalapa or 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 (the older spelling is Xalapa; although Jalapa typically refers to this town of the state of Veracruz, there are other towns with that name in Tabasco, Chiapas, Oaxaca, Guatemala and Nicaragua).

Figure 174: Immature jalapeno (Capsicum annuum var. annuum)[ix]

In the definition of jalapeño above, the word cultivar [ˈkʰʌl.tɪ.ˌvaɹ] was mentioned. We have also been using this word in this section as an alternative for the word variety. The word cultivar refers in botany 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). There is no escaping the fact that Eng. cultivar is a homograph of the Spanish verb cultivar [kul.t̪i.ˈβaɾ] that means ‘to cultivate’. Eng. cultivar has been used in Spanish in recent times as a loanword from English and only in a limited fashion and as a technical term. The alternative variedad is more common and preferred.

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 typical of Havana, La Habana in Spanish, the capital and main city of Cuba.[x]

Figure 175: Habanero[xi]

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.[xii] In the United States, the name Tabasco is associated with a hot sauce made from these chilies and peppered vinegar produced by the McIlhenny Company of Avery Island, Louisiana.[xiii] The Spanish name for this chili is chile tabasco. It is not clear where the name of the Mexican state of Tabasco comes from, although there are various theories about it. The most popular one is that it comes from the name of the local indigenous chief (Sp. cacique, from Arawak kassequa ‘chieftain’) when the Spanish arrived around 1518.
Figure 176: Tabasco peppers[xiv]


[1] This pepper is the main ingredient in Tabasco sauce, which is very popular in the United States. This sauce was invented in 1868 by a Mexican company, which was later bought by McIlhenny Company in Louisiana.

[2] Eng. pubescent comes ultimately from the accusative wordform pūbēscentem of the same word pūbēscēns. It means ‘reaching or having reached puberty’ or else ‘covered with short hairs or soft down’ (AHD). This Latin verb derives from the adjective pūbēs ‘of ripe age, adult, pubescent’ (gen. pūberis). Eng. pubis ‘either of a pair of bones forming the two sides of the pelvis’ (COED), ‘pubic bone’, comes from the genitive wordform pūbis of Lat. pūbēs, being short for os pūbis ‘bone of the pubes’. Eng. pubes comes from Lat. pūbēs and it can mean either ‘the lower part of the abdomen, especially the region surrounding the external genital organs’ or ‘the hair that appears on this region at puberty’ (AHD), though not all dictionaries include this second meaning. The Spanish word pubis covers the meanings of both Eng. pubes and pubis, but not the sense ‘pubic hair’ of Eng. pubes. That sense translate as vello del pubis.

[3] There is another word baccātus in Latin, namely the passive participle of the verb baccārī, an alternative form of the verb bacchārī, which meant ‘to celebrate the festival of Bacchus’ and ‘to revel, rave, rant, like the Bacchæ’ (L&S). (The Bacchæ [ˈbæ.ki], also known as bacchāntēs—pronounced [ˈbækənts], [bəˈkʰænts], or [bə.ˈkʰɑnts]—were priestesses of the god Bacchus. In Roman mythology they were the equivalent to the maenads [ˈmi.nædz] in Greek mythology, from Gk. μαινάδες (mainádes; lit. ‘the raving ones’), followers of the god Dionysus, equivalent to Bacchus in Greek mythology.)

[3] For more on frequentative Latin verbs, see Part I, Chapter 8, § From the supine stem pict‑ and the noun-forming suffix ‑ūr‑a we also get the cognates Eng. picture ~ Sp. pintura, which are semi-false friends. The come from from Latin pictūra, which meant ‘the art of painting’, but also ‘a painting’. Both are loanwords from Latin, but Spanish pintura received the n that the related patrimonial word pintar had.

[4] 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’.

[i] Cf.
[i] Source: “Madame Jeanette and other chillies” by Takeaway - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons -
[iv] Source: “Chipotlestipicos” by Badagnani - Own work. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -
[vi] Source: “Pot-o-chili” by FiveRings at English Wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -
[vii] Source: “Large Cayenne” by André Karwath aka Aka - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons -
[ix] 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)
[xi] 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)
[xiv] Source: “Tabasco peppers”. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons -

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