Pass the Chile

By Maeve Maddox

Every time I see a race called the Chile Pepper advertised in my local paper, I have the same reaction:

Chile is the country and chili is the vegetable!

Most dictionaries give the spelling chile as a “variant” of chili, but chili remains the most common American spelling. (The British spell chili with two ls: chilli.)

The word chili comes from a Nahuatl word cilli. It has nothing to do with the country Chile. (For various theories as to where the country got its name, see the Etymology section in the Wikipedia article. Link below.)

Spelling the country (Chile) one way and the edible (chili) another seems to me to serve a useful purpose.

As the U. S. Hispanic population grows and as more Americans learn even a little Spanish, the Spanish spelling may come to “look right” to more and more people. Time will tell.

NOTE: Some may argue that the chili pepper is not a vegetable, but a spice. Certainly that is how we use it, but the chili pepper belongs to the same plant family as tomatoes and potatoes.

Etymology of the name of the country Chile
See this article at YaleGlobal Online for all you could ever want to know about chili peppers.

Click here to get access to 800+ interactive grammar exercises!


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13 Responses to “Pass the Chile”

  • Lawrence Miller

    Scientifically speaking, though tomato is usually used as a vegetable and a chili as a spice: tomatoes and chilies are fruits, not a vegetables. See http://www.askoxford.com/asktheexperts/faq/aboutother/tomato and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fruit.

    Am I being picky? No, precise.

  • nutmeag

    I’ve always agreed with you on the whole Chile/chili spelling thing, but having lived in San Antonio, TX for the past 6 years, I’ve come to pronounce it differently. I’m not sure if it’s Tex-Mex or real Mexican Spanish talking here, but most every Latino person I meet pronounces the spice Chee-lay, which invokes the Chile spelling in my book.

  • Falsafa

    Actually, chilli is a fruit, but tomato is technically a fish. One of the most common misconceptions. Oh, and a potato is a nocturnal mammal.

    But seriously, if someone advertises it like this, then it’s a brand name and they can use all sorts of inventive spelling. Like Mortal Kombat for example.

  • Ginkgo100

    I disagree with you! And so does Alton Brown of Food Network. According to me and Alton:

    Chile = South American country
    chile = any fruit (botanically) of the pepper family, including bells, jalapeños, and habañeros
    chili = any of a number of American soups, stews or sauces made with hot chiles. Includes chili con carne (a red chili with meat and usually beans) and New Mexican green chili (a stew made with Hatch green chiles and pork but never with beans)
    chile powder = also “powdered chiles,” a powder made from ground-up dried chiles, usually red chiles
    chili powder = a blend of ground spices including powdered chiles, cumin, garlic, and onion, used to season meat, beans, and chili

  • P Baughman

    I’ll have to agree with ginkgo100. Chili is a dish which contains chiles (the peppers).

    Most often in the grocery stores, the canned peppers are spelled “chiles”

    Might it be a regional thing? I’m in the Mid-Atlantic states.

  • David in San Antonio

    This conundrum is an old one, but I’m comfortable with my use of the terms. When writing about New Mexico peppers, I use “chile,” as in green (or red) chile stew. That’s the way it was when I lived in northern New Mexico, and that’s the way it will always be for me.

    Now that I’m in Texas, I make “chili,” as in the Tex-Mex concoction, chili con carne. When I make my favorite NM dish, it’s still green chile stew. Maybe you have to have been there.

    And Hatch chiles aren’t the only ones in NM. You can find tasty, and distictive, chiles all the way up the Rio Grande valley to as far north as Española.

  • croneandbearit

    What bothers me is how quickly we incorporate into our language incorrect words, solely because of the amount of usage. I have recently been losing my religion over the local tv station anchor’s continual mispronunciation of the word meteorologist. Apparently, I am the only person this bothers.

  • David in San Antonio

    “Distinctive,” is what I meant to say, of course. I think I’d like to make some green chile stew this weekend. And some sopapillas.

  • Francisco Luciano Fernandes

    Gentleman,

    I regret not to be a native speaker, that’s way I didn’t respond to you early.
    We comit mistakes even in Portuguese language, that is badly spoken and written.
    Please appologise my erros here now.
    It would be a great sin not to thankfull you with your contribution. Since I’ve been connected to you, I’ve learned to much and ready to write without stoping!…
    But… Just in… Por…por Portugueese!
    Please help to creat a blog!

    Best regards.

  • Michael

    As a New Mexican, the eternal question is “red or green chile?”

  • Julian Locke

    Can somebody help me? I’m looking for a lost L in “chilli”. The O.E.D. gives “chilli” as the main spelling, while “chile” (plural “chiles”) is given as an alternative. The variant “chili” is marked with an asterisk, which I believe indicates a non-naturalized form (in this case, the American spelling). Meanwhile, Wikipedia, with its regrettable but inevitable American dominance, prefers “chili pepper”, offering “chilli pepper”, “chilli”, “chili” and “chile” as alternatives. (I do wish the founders of Wikipedia had followed the eminent tradition set by the Encyclopædia Britannica, the oldest English-language encyclopaedia still in print, which has kept its British spelling to this day, even though it moved from Scotland to the U.S.A. more than a century ago, and has had numerous, mostly American, publishers since then.)

    PS The Wikipedia entries for “Chili Pepper” and the related “Scoville scale” make interesting reading. Don’t rely on Wikipedia for helping you to learn English, though. It’s chock-full of grammatical errors.

  • Ginkgo100

    Wikipedia uses the variant of English spelling appropriate to the subject. For British things, like articles relating to the U.K., it uses British spellings, while for American things, it uses American spellings. For articles on subjects that don’t really have a nationality, it uses the spelling used by the first major author of the article. For example, there is are articles titled “Fertilisation” and “Fertilizer.” The first uses British spelling; the second uses American spelling.

    Chiles are an American food, so it uses the American spelling. Actually, chile is a loanword from Spanish, so that would be the spelling that Wikipedia prefers. Chilli is a variant spelling I have seen in some sources influenced by British English, but in Spanish it would be pronounced “chi-ji” or “chi-yi.” The double-L is actually considered a separate letter in Spanish!

    If you see grammatical errors on Wikipedia, consider fixing them. Each page has a tab at the top that says “Edit,” and each section has a link at the top right so you can edit just the section. You don’t even need to have an account to edit most articles.

  • Julian Locke

    Dear Ginkgo100, I have edited numerous Wikipedia pages, but I’m sure you’ll appreciate that my efforts cannot amount to more than a drop in an ever-expanding ocean. Your reference to “Fertilisation” and “Fertilizer” highlights the very problem I was trying to address. While Encyclopædia Britannica has set a standard and kept to it, Wikipedia’s approach cannot fail to lead to conflicts and contradictions. Nevertheless, I am greatly enthusiastic about the project, and I wish it lasting success. I just wish more people would take the time to edit articles in which they find errors, be they factual, grammatical, or whatever. There’s no shortage of corrections to be made, as I’m sure you’ve noticed.

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