Issue 144, page 1

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A reader recently asked us "why only Australians call sweet peppers capsicums while both the English and Americans call them peppers".  This is going to take a little explaining.

First, it's not "only Australians" who use the word capsicum.  As this is the scientific name of the genus, it is used by botanists and gardeners throughout the world.  It may well be that Australians are a little more careful in their nomenclature than the English and Americans because capsicums aren't peppers at all.

black pepper with leafThe true, Old World, pepper is the dried fruit of an East Indian vine.  It was known to the ancient Greeks and Romans who preferred the species called long pepper (Piper longum) over the familiar black pepper (Piper nigrum), perhaps because of its greater pungency.  Both species came from India where, in the Sanskrit language, long pepper was called pippali.  This became peperi in Greek, piper in Latin and from there spread to most other European languages.  French poivre, German pfeffer, Swedish peppar all took this route but, as we shall see, the Spanish and Portuguese words did not.

The Sanskrit pippali has resisted analysis into Indo-European roots.  This is undoubtedly because the plant did not exist in the Indo-European homeland and is probably of Dravidian origin.  The name pippali is thought to be related to pipal a species of fig tree (Ficus religiosa) but the only feature they seem to share is the shape of their leaves.  The pipal is sometimes called the bo tree (from Sanskrit bodhi "awakening") because it was under this species that the Buddha sat and achieved enlightenment.  

Spanish pimienta and Portuguese pimenta come from the Indo-European root *peig- meaning "to cut" or "to mark [by incision]" and, thus, share their ancestry with pigment, picture and paint.  The reason for this is that in Late Latin, pigmentum ("dye") was also used to mean "spice".  As the spice par excellence, pepper was pigmentum which subsequently became Spanish pimienta and Portuguese pimenta.  When the conquistadors discovered a fiery new spice in Mexico they considered it a novel form of pepper and, naturally, called it pimienta.  We call it capsicum or chili pepper.

Capsicum takes its name from the "box-like" fruits from Latin capsa "box" (as in capsule "little box").  There have been claims that it comes from Greek kaptein "to bite" or "to seize with the teeth" (apparently referring to its pungency) but this is highly dubious.chlie, chilli, cayenne or red pepper

We sometimes see the chili in chili pepper spelled chile, as if it originated from that South American country.  Chili, however, is truly a Mexican word, being the Aztec (Nahuatl) word for "red".  So chili pepper literally means "red pepper".  Likewise, cayenne pepper does not take its name from the Cayenne which is the capital of French Guiana.  Rather, it comes from kyinha, the word for chili pepper in Tupi, a Native American language.

Somehow (no one is quite sure how), the chili pepper was introduced to Hungary in the 17th century.  There, it was cultivated for mildness of flavor and, when dried, became paprika (Hungarian "little pepper").  Some of these mild varieties were bred for size and these are what are known as bell peppers in the U.S. and (as we now know) capsicums in Australia.

Just to confuse matters further, when the Spanish brought allspice (Pimenta officinalis) to Europe from the West Indies, they called that pimienta, too, perhaps because it resembles pepper-corns in appearance.  This error was then copied by the rest of Europe and is why words for "pepper" crop up in so many names for allspice - Russian Yamaiskiy pjerets ("Jamaica pepper") , French poivre aromatique ("aromatic pepper"), German Nelkenpfeffer ("clove pepper") and Swedish kryddpeppar ("condiment pepper").  The English allspice  and French toute-épice ("allspice") are tributes to the complexity of its flavor.

Many thanks to Gernot Katzer's Spice Pages.

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