By Dave DeWitt
A great deal of discussion and controversy has erupted over the terminology of the Capsicum genus in English. There are hundreds if not thousands of common terms for the pods in languages from all over the world, so it is curious that the following ones have been debated with such passion.
Ají. This word, from the Arawaks of the West Indies, was transferred to South America by the Spanish and became the general term there for Capsicums of all varieties, but specifically the species baccatum. It is used in South America like the word chile is used in Central America and Mexico.
Capsicum. From the Greek kapto, to bite, this is the botanical name for the genus and the one preferred by the scientific community. I assume that there would be little controversy here, except for two drawbacks. First, the term is unfamiliar to most people; and second, the term “capsicum” specifically means bell pepper in the United Kingdom, Singapore and other English-speaking parts of Southeast Asia.
Pepper. Of course, we know that Christopher Columbus used the Spanish term pimiento, which means black pepper, to describe the Capsicums. According to some writers, this means that the word pepper should never be used for the Capsicums because of the confusion with black pepper. However, in English the word pepper is either plural (“give me some peppers”) or modified by either chile or chili, so the possibility of confusing green pods with black peppercorns is remote.
Chile. This is the Mexican Spanish term for Capsicums, supposedly derived from chilli (which see). It is also used in New Mexico as both a noun and an adjective before the word pepper. It is spelled with an “e” to avoid confusion with chili, meaning chili con carne. Surprisingly, many newspapers in the U.S. have changed the spelling from chili to chile over the past decade. This is probably because of the popularity of Chile Pepper magazine and the many cookbooks using the spelling that have been published.
Chili. This is the Anglicized version of chile that is probably the most popular spelling in the U.S., Germany, and Canada. It is also both a noun and an adjective when followed by pepper. It is also the shortened version of chili con carne, the dish with Capsicums, meat, spices, and occasionally beans, so there can be confusion in a headline such as “Fred Jones Wins Chili Contest.” Did he win for his pods from his garden or his bowl of red?
Chilli. Pepper expert Jean Andrews believed that the proper English term is chilli. This is also the British spelling for hot peppers, but her argument goes back to the Aztecs. She writes that the Nahuatl language spelling, as transliterated by Dr. Francisco Hernandez (1514-1578), was chilli. She observes: “That Spanish spelling was later changed to chile by the Spanish-speaking Mexicans, and ‘chili’ in the United States. Chilli is the name most used by English speaking people throughout the world.” This may be so, but the question arises as to the original transliteration. When translating a non-written word into a written language, all kinds of linguistic problems can occur, which is why we call the city Beijing instead of Peking now. If Hernandez was correct, the proper pronunciation of the word would be “chee-yee” because the double L in Spanish is pronounced like an English Y. Since no one pronounces either chile, chili, or chilli this way, why is the spelling so important?
Chile (or Chili) Peppers. This either a redundant or an extremely precise term, depending on your point of view. It is used to distinguish the plants and the pods from dishes made with them, but purists object to both using chile or chili as an adjective and to using the word pepper.
Conclusion. The many spellings and the syntax of the words used to describe the Capsicum genus will never be standardized. This is because–and we’re not being being flip–no one really cares outside of academia, and even the experts there disagree. Languages evolve, and because of the increasing popularity of Capsicums, the terms to describe them are better known and there is less chance of confusion.