Sunday, February 7, 2016

Spicy Spelling: Is It Chile, Chili, Chillie, or Chilly?

Spicy Spelling: Chile, Chili, Chillie, Chilly, or Pepper?

We frequently get asked—and confronted—about the correct spellings and proper terminology for the beloved chile. Or is it a pepper? Over the centuries, vast arrays of spellings have developed for the Capsicum genus of plants and their spicy fruit pods. If you've ever wondered about this, read on.

How do you spell that?
If you're like us, you've probably seen several of these spelling variations: chile, chili, chillie, chile, chili, chilly, and perhaps others as well. So which is it?

Many arguments have been made as to why one is better than the other. The arguments often boil down to whichever spelling a person grew up seeing the most frequently. All of them have their roots in the word chil from the Aztec, Nahuatl languageThe spelling was later changed by Spanish-speaking Mexicans to "chile" and later to "chili" in the United States,1 according to the late expert Jean Andrews. (The United Kingdom has it's own version, spelled "chilli.") The first known usage of the term in English goes back to at least 1604.2 

The National Chile Pepper Institute has issued a statement that the term "chile" refers to the Capsicum plant or the fruit from the plant while the term "chili" refers to a culinary dish consisting of a meat, beans, tomatoes and chile powder.3

Some people argue that you cannot spell it as "chile" because that is the name of a country. However, that argument doesn't hold up well. After all, each year Americans alone consume over 730,000,000 pounds of turkey4—and that doesn't seem to be a problem for the nation of Turkey. Similarly, the vast amounts of dishes called china hasn't been a problem for the nation of China. Just by context alone, if someone is eating, growing, cooking, buying or selling a chile or a turkey, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to realize that the statement is not referring to an entire country!

Webster's and Oxford dictionaries both list chili, chile, and several other spellings as acceptable variations.

Confused Christopher Columbus and the chile
Christopher Columbus
Christopher Columbus
So now that you understand the variations of the spelling of chile, why do people call them peppers or chile peppers? It all started when, "in 1492 Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue"—in search of the spices of Asia, namely, black pepper. To be clear, he was searching for the black pepper that is found in shakers next to salt on nearly every table in Western nations. When he arrived at the shores of North America, he believed he had arrived in India. And when the natives offered him their beloved chil, he thought he had found the black pepper he was searching for. This misunderstanding led to the distribution of Capsicum (chiles) back to Europe under the name of "pepper."5 In today's world, in which we understand that Capsicum is clearly not the same thing as pepper from the Piper genus, we have to clarify that difference by saying "chile pepper."

In today's increasingly global society, the use of certain terms may be an indicator of cultural heritage. People from the Western world (influenced by Columbus) may be more likely to refer to Capsicum in English as peppers (for example, jalapeño peppers and ghost peppers), whereas people from other backgrounds might be more likely to refer to them as chiles (for example, Thai chiles and ghost chiles). While this may not be one hundred percent accurate, we generally have found this to be true, especially between Americans and Asians.

By the way, are you sure you're using the term Capsicum correctly?
Bell Peppers are known as capsicum in some countries If you are confused by the way we've used the word "Capsicum," that may also give an indication to what part of the world in which you live or where your were raised. Scientifically speaking, Capsicum refers to an entire genus of plants that we have come to know as chiles or peppers. However, if you were raised in certain countries with a British influence on English (for example, India, Bhutan, Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Singapore or New Zealand), "capsicum" has come to refer to one specific type of chile that has no fiery heat. This specific cultivar of Capsicum annuum is known as the "Bell Pepper" in countries influenced by the United States' English.

Conclusion
At Himalaya Hot, we love the plants and spicy fruits of Capsicum—no matter the way you spell it. We are fond of the spelling "chile," and we prefer "chile" over "pepper." But our main passion is to spread a love for all things spicy—especially Bhutanese/Himalayan chiles and spicy foods. We will accept any variation, so long as it helps people share appreciation for one of the most exciting foods that God created on the earth.

References
1. http://articles.latimes.com/2000/nov/19/local/me-54396
2. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/chilli
3. http://www.chilepepperinstitute.org/faqs.php
4. http://extension.illinois.edu/turkey/turkey_facts.cfm
5. Fleetwood, J. (2006). Red hot! A Cook's Encyclopedia of Fire and Spice. London: Hermes House.

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