Chili Vs. Chile: PepperScale Showdown

Identity crisis…

For a food as popular as hot peppers, there sure is a lot of confusion over its name. Is it a “chili” or “chile”. Or maybe even “chilli”? These are all common variants, but is one more correct than the other? Why do these variations exist in the first place? And how does geography play into these different spellings? We break it all down in another PepperScale Showdown: Chili vs. Chile. 

What’s the most common usage in North America? Chili or chile?

“Chili” and “chile” are both the most popular spellings. In fact, along with “chilli”, all three are seen as correct spellings in most dictionaries. Other acceptable spellings for these fruits from the nightshade family include “chilly” and “chillie”. But the dictionary doesn’t control usage, and the most popular usage in North America is chili with an “i” and one “l”.

Yes, “chili” then refers to both the spicy fruit as well as the spicy meat and bean dish that the peppers are often used in, and that can lead to some confusion. But really, the doubling of  the meaning is simple to understand in most contexts.

Ok, but is one spelling more correct than another?

For this question, let’s dive into language history. The Spanish word for the peppers is “chile,” which means that this is how it is spelled throughout Latin America. Latin America is where these peppers originated. However, it is important to note that the original Nahuatl word for the pepper was “chilli” according to 16th century transcriptions. When the word first showed up in English in the 17th century, it was spelled as “chille.” As you can see, variations on the spelling have haunted “chili” through its history, and none can be really though of as more correct in the global scheme of things.

Do different regions tend to fall on one side of the fence or the other?

They do. In New Mexico and other parts of the southwest, for instance, peppers are typically called “chile” due to the Spanish cultural influence in that part of the country. New Mexicans generally limit the use of the “chili” label to the actual bean dish. But even that can get confusing because oftentimes the “chile” spelling also extends to dishes that have the pepper as a main ingredient. That’s easy to understand with dishes like chile sauce, green chile stew, and green chile enchiladas, but then there’s the more confusing “chile con carne”, a common variant in the Southwest speaking to spicy bean chili with meat, vs. “chili con carne” which literally means the bean dish with meat. They technically speak to the same dish in different ways.

The variations in spelling continue with “chilli” being the most common spelling in the U.K. and other parts of Europe. This also happens to be the spelling in India and other places influenced by British English.

So where does PepperScale stand, “chili” or “chile”?

We prefer the “chili” spelling since it’s how it is most commonly spelled in American English (and what we grew up with), but obviously any variant is acceptable in our books. It just goes to show how important our favorite food has been – and continues to be – around the world.

UPDATE NOTICE: This post was updated on March 19, 2022 to include new content.
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