Europe did not have any kind of capsicum or chili pepper before the Columbian exchange of the 15th and 16th centuries.

These days many people feel that the word "spicy" only describes the kind of "spicy hot" of chilis and not of the heat of black pepper, horseradish, mustard, wasabi, etc.

But was the word already in use before we knew of chilli peppers, I guess in the period roughly at the cusp of Middle English becoming Early Modern English?

If it was already a word then, how did we use it at that time, which foods, condiments, etc was it used to describe?

Even if the word came to us after chilies were already known, was that one of its major uses at first?

  • Well, cloves, nutmeg and cinnamon, at the very least, all of which have been available all over Europe (at least to people who could afford them) for thousands of years despite being cultivated in the Middle East.
    – Charl E
    Sep 19, 2016 at 7:37
  • But did we use the term spicy to describe those things? I'm sure we used the word spice. These days I've seen English speakers get up in arms to see someone use it about. Here's some exchanges: [1], [2] Sep 19, 2016 at 10:29
  • 2
    The OED has, from 1626, So Fennell-seeds are sweet before they ripen, and after grow spicy. So it was used for other spices before chili peppers were discovered. Sep 19, 2016 at 12:57
  • @PeterShor: That's what I'm looking for - you should submit an answer! Sep 19, 2016 at 13:53

1 Answer 1


The first reference in the OED is from 1562.

1562 W. Turner Herball (1568) ii. 50 The shel smelleth well, and is spycye, not onely in smell, but also in taste.

The word spice had been around since the 13th century, from the French espice (modern:épice)

  • So it looks like spicy has been in English for about a century longer than chile and capsicum, so I wonder how differently it was used back then and which things it used to describe. Sep 19, 2016 at 10:26
  • Peppery also doesn't seem to go back further than the 1690s, roughly the same as chile and capsicum so maybe those hot foods were originally described as peppery with spicy taking its place more recently and having originally meant having a lot of spice of any kind? Sep 19, 2016 at 10:44

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