English English language Etymology Spelling Usage Word origin

Chili, chile, or chilli?

Q: Can “chile” describe a pepper, or is “chili” the correct spelling? My company has taken over the Golden Chile Award, which has been spelled that way for years. I would like not to correct it, but I also don’t want to misspell the award.

A: There are three spellings for this hot pepper from several varieties of the genus Capsicum: “chili,” “chile,” and “chilli.”

Which is correct? It depends on where you live.

The usual spelling in American English is “chili,” but “chile” is an acceptable variant. The usual spelling in British English is “chilli.” 

(The plurals are “chilies” or “chiles” in the US, and chillies” in the UK.)

Should you change the spelling of the pepper in the name of the award? We don’t think so.

Although we spell the word “chili,” there’s a good case to be made for sticking with the existing name of the award, which is given for sauces, relishes, and other fiery foods, as we’ve learned online.

The award is American, and the two US dictionaries we consult the most list “chile” as a legitimate variant of the more common spelling “chili.”

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) says such a variant spelling is “acceptable in any context,” while Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) says the choice here is a matter of “personal inclination.”

And, as you undoubtedly know, the Spanish word is spelled chile in Latin America, the  birthplace of the hot pepper. And that’s the way the word is spelled in “chiles rellenos,” the stuffed peppers that originated in Mexico.

However, the name of the plant was chilli in 16th-century transcriptions of Nahuatl, the indigenous language that gave Spanish the word.

The plant was spelled “chille” when it showed up in English in the 17th century. The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from The Indian Nectar, a 1662 treatise on chocolate: “Some Pepper called Chille … was put in.”

However, the spelling is “chile” in the next OED example, from Vinetum Britannicum, a 1678 book by John Worlidge about cider: “Two Cods, or Pods, of Chile.”

Interestingly, the earliest citation for the usual American spelling, “chili,” is from a British novel, Vanity Fair (1848), by William Makepeace Thackeray:

“ ‘Try a chili with it, Miss Sharp,’ said Joseph, really interested. ‘A chili,’ said Rebecca, gasping. ‘Oh yes!’ She thought a chili was something cool, as its name imported.”

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