Chile con Frontation

By Talia Felix, Assistant Editor.

Well before Columbus had dared the deep blue, the chile pepper was firing up the bellies of the Americas. These little firecrackers were staples among the indigenous folk. The word is from Nahuatl (Aztecan) chilli, the native name for the peppers. Almost as soon as the Europeans caught wind and sail, the chiles took to the seas, spreading like wildfire across the continents and stirring up culinary revolutions at almost every port they touched. Nowadays they are indispensable parts of Thai, Indian, Nigerian, Ethiopian, and other cuisines that can already show off long lineages that date from well before this newcomer was inducted into the family.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

The imagery is going crazy in this.

There was a time that in my mind, the term pepper rivaled the term chili as the primary name for this botanical lot. Given the deep history of chili, the ascendancy of pepper is impressive.

The name of the country Chile comes from the song of a bird there.

The country name is of uncertain origin but the bird is one of the guesses people give. The entry, in which I tried to list anything that is popularly repeated, is here: Chile | Etymology of the name Chile by etymonline

I apologize if the comment is a bit long. I want to bring up two points. First, the semantics of “chili” and “pepper” are related. The English form “pepper” evidences a truncated mode of “per-per”. Ethiopians call ‘chili pepper’ “berbere (ber-ber)”. Periperi (peri-peri) provides another mode of the notion. The root “ber” underpins several words denoting ‘light, heat, and fire’, and it touts extensive cognates in Indo-European languages. Among them are “burn, bright, fire, and pyre”. Pepper, then, appeals to the fiery attribute of chili pepper.
Separately, the notion of “chili” tags another attribute of the pepper of the name. It references ‘red-hot’ color. This is the color of ripe pods of chili pepper. The word itself has cognates as much in Ethiopian languages as in Indo-European. “Chili” conforms to the verb “qela,” meaning “to be red”. As a homonym, “qela” doubles for “beheading”. The sense connection lies in the blood that flows from beheading. European forms “kill” and “Kel-t,” as in “Keltic,” are of the same semantics. In short, a parity of thought prevails between “chili” and “pepper,” based on the perceived attributes of the plant.
Second, regarding the origin of the country name Chile, if a bird is implicated in the name, the color of the bird, not its song, may lend credence to the legend. But I am in the dark here, as I am unaware of the bird and its attributes.
All that said, I am not convinced that fiery chili pepper entered the Old World in the Columbian Epoch. Outside of English, the Nahuatl name “chilli” did not travel with the plant. New research frames relationships between ancient languages differently. But that is better left for another time.

The chile pepper is not native to the Old World. The name chile is not going to be from Ethiopian or any related language. It is a New World discovery with a name taken from New World languages.

The “pepper” element is based on its perceived resemblance to the Old World spice pepper, especially the long pepper which in former times was used as a culinary spice in Europe.

A reflection or a diversion: I find it intriguing that the spelling is a controversial issue - and I say so with Norwegian as mother tongue, a Germanic language and therefore intrepid about combinations of words - or, as I would prefer, wordcombinations.

So in the case of chile/chili/chilli we would see the word as foreign, used whatever spelling we perceive the foreigners have brought us, and use terms like “chilipepper” for the, “chilipot” for a stew (usually containing beans), and “chilipasta” for a paste made with it.

Just sayin’.

Con Frontation, indeed! I certainly would not dispute that “chilis” are a New World crop, as I lack basis to do so. At the same time, I would be irresponsible to ignore the linguistic convergence. I am not alone. The literature on the history of chili pepper often accounts for the name in terms of them being “red and hot”, although the literature itself does not articulate the views in a clear manner. (Ask for citations if you need one.) What would be dispositive is knowing on what basis the Aztecs gave “chili” its name. There is a story behind every name, even if we may not always know it.

I have reason not to ignore the linguistic connection from uncovered evidence that indicates a linguistic connection between Old World and New World languages. I was initiated on the path some twenty-five years ago, accidentally, when I noticed word forms common to the two worlds. I have since kept a list of words that inform on the phenomenon. Over 125 years ago, the poet and scholar Gerald Massey included a story in one of his books about North American Native populations called the Takuli, a branch of the Tinneh. They were a “wolf totem”. What Gerald Massey did not realize, and could not have realized, was that Ethiopians have always identified the “wolf” as tekula or tekhula. There is no ground suggesting a connection between the two societies in 13,000 years. Bat there we are.

It is unfortunate that academia has been stonewalling on the subject of a pre-Columbian connection between the Old and New Worlds, even in the face of mounting evidence. Yet, from the monuments of Mesoamerican civilizations to linguistic forms, an Old World-New World relationship is apparent. I will close with the following. Years ago, archaeologists were surprised to find Egyptian mummies stuffed with tobacco leaves, a New World crop. I would also love to mention how cognates of “cigar” show up in Ethiopian languages. But I will skip that, as it will gross you out. Imagination is free.

And without a doubt the reason no one puts this information into legitimate anthropological and historical studies is because of irrational stonewalling, and not that further examination tends to reveal the findings were either faulty in the first place or that other explanations like later contamination were to blame?

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I am afraid that is a blanket statement. Of course, academics would be expected to do what they are supposed to do and thoroughly vet whether a proposition is sound and tenable or not. That was not my experience at all. The academy is married to dogma, and more often one encounters a knee jerk reaction. This story is not over. And hopefully, you will hear about it sometime. If this is a personal email of yours, I would be glad to attach a copy of a letter I have circulated to a select group of academics on findings of a ground-breaking research that was developed and refined over thirty years, three volumes of it. I can assure you that there is a lot that academics are not aware of.

Sorry, I copied and pasted a reply that I had tried to send you through Gmail. It did not work. That is why the reply queries about your personal email.


That was beautiful.