I first thought they were “chilies.” Right? Wrong. Well, not quite. Like its many uses around the world, the fiery capsicum (the scientific name) can be spelled, and said, in many ways.
Google doesn’t really help. Chilies brings up Chili’s, the restaurant chain, while chili peppers bring up the band Red Hot Chili Peppers. Chile is the name of the popular, spicy tex-mex dish (and a country). Pepper is a derivative of peppercorn, technically unrelated to the chili.
There is no right answer. Here, I go with chili pepper and chilies, to be consistent, but really, there are hundreds of names for the fiery fruit, like the many names of the ancient Inca gods near where the chili pepper itself was born.
The confusion began right at contact. Columbus was in search of a new route to India and the spices of the east, especially that most popular spice, the original king, black pepper. So when they arrived in the Caribbean and found the natives seasoning their food with a powerful spice they called aji the Spanish assumed that it was a form of the pepper which they were seeking.
Pepper. 100% wrong, but, history is written by the winners (or in this case, killers.) The name stuck. The Portuguese still call it pimenta, literally, pepper. The word comes from the Sanskrit pippali, which came west with the spice trade. But when chilies made it to India, they weren’t confused for the native black peppers, and were given the name achar in the dominant trade dialect of the time, perhaps distantly related to the aji of the now gone Arawak people of the Caribbean .
That answers half the question, but what about chili?
That name wasn’t used in the old world until three decades later, when a vicious conquest and destruction of the Aztec Empire brought the Spanish into contact with the highland chili peppers of Mexico, which, unlike their tropical kin in the Caribbean and Brazil, could actually grow in temperate, seasonal Europe. It was these chilies that would become the most popular in the world, and today, include the jalapeno, the Thai chili, and the bellpepper.
This, it was now clear, was not black pepper. The Spanish had learned that. So what did the native Nahuatl speakers call it?
Of course, the Aztecs domesticated many varieties of chili peppers, and Mexico today still utilizes the most diverse range of chilies in its cooking. So its fitting that their word is how we refer to the fiery fruit.
In English we say chili or chile, chilly, chili pepper, and capsicum, depending on where in the Anglosphere you reside. As part of my research, I’ve begun collecting the many different ways chili peppers are referred to around the world, both today, and historically, and here is the short list I have so far.
Add to my list by commenting below and telling me what “chili pepper” or “spicy” is in your language, what it means, and where that word may have come from.
How you decide to spell it is up to you!