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Background: In many languages other than English, paprika is the word for Capsicum peppers (bell peppers, chili peppers). In English, comparatively, paprika seems to refer primarily (only?) to the spice, made from dried and ground red peppers. I personally have never heard it refer to the pepper, Wikipedia says "In some languages, but not English, the word paprika also refers to the plant and the fruit from which the spice is made", and the Oxford Advanced American (as well as the advanced learner) dictionary lists only the spice version.

Question: Did the word in English originally refer to the fruit, as it does in many other languages, and then take on its current form referring to the spice, or did it always refer to the spice?

Research: Etymonline states:

condiment made from types of dried, ground sweet red peppers, 1839, from Hungarian paprika, a diminutive from Serbo-Croatian papar "pepper," [...]

Which could be read to mean that the spice meaning was taken from Hungarian, but doesn't state it outright. A Hungarian-English dictionary lists the pepper form first, and the spice form second, and the Hungarian Wikitionary entry lists only the pepper form, which maybe hints that the the word would have commonly meant the pepper in Hungarian at the time it was imported, but that of course doesn't tell us what the imported version in English meant (and doesn't even tell us what sense was more common in Hungarian, back in 1839).

Wikipedia's somewhat contradictory statement that "The first recorded use of the word paprika in English is from 1896, although an earlier reference to Turkish paprika was published in 1831" leads to Encyclopaedia Americana. p. 476 (1831), which makes an offhand mention to "Turkish Pepper (paprika)". The context here seems clear that this is quoting a foreign word, so I don't know what, if anything, that implies about the (later?) import of the word into English.

Wikipedia also asserts "The word derives from the Hungarian word paprika" and cites "A Magyar Nyelv Történeti-Etimológiai Szótára [The Historical-Etymological Dictionary of the Hungarian Language]. Vol. 3. Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó. 1976. p. 93." and maybe the reference would contain more details, but unfortunately I can't find it, and, being unable to read Hungarian, I doubt I could understand it anyways!

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  • I first heard the word as the name of the spice in goulash and as a colour name. This would have been in the late 60s/early 70s when there was a sudden growth of interest in international cuisine in the UK. Peppers (fruit) were little known or grown here at that time. Commented Sep 3, 2022 at 7:24
  • Also 'pepper' in UK generally means the ground spice. The fruits are freely available these days, usually caller 'peppers' in the plural. Commented Sep 3, 2022 at 9:02
  • Most English speakers would agree that paprika refers to the spice. All the rest is tangential and more specialized.
    – Lambie
    Commented Sep 3, 2022 at 16:52

1 Answer 1

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Paprika even today can refer to the fruit in English also; and it can refer to several varieties of the fruit, but this usage is not common. Paprika was never used primarily just for the fruit, it was almost always used in multiple senses: the spice, the fruit or designating a dish flavoured with the spice or the fruit. It also refers to the color which was attested later than other senses.

Here is the OED definition for the fruit sense and the earliest citation from 1851:

The mildly flavoured, usually red fruit of any of several European varieties of the sweet pepper, Capsicum annuum (Longum group); (also) a plant producing such fruit. Also more fully paprika pepper.

Kitchen vegetables and garden plants of every description, melons,..Turkish pepper (paprika), fruits, [etc.].
1851 Encycl. Americana VI. 476/2

Paprika for the spice is the most common usage in English, especially in culinary context; and paprika is usually understood as the spice unless it clearly refers to the fruit in the context. Paprika for the fruit is uncommon in culinary context in English. For example, the citation from 1960 in OED refers to the paprika pepper peculiar to Hungary:

Red or green sweet peppers, also called capsicums. The pimientos of Spain, paprika peppers of Hungary and peperoni of Italy.
1960 E. David French Provinc. Cooking 96

The latest citation from 2003 in OED is in the context of food import:

The Japanese are very strict with imported foods. If they find one paprika that has turned soft, the whole bunch will be rejected.
2003 Malaysian Business (Nexis) 1 Apr. (Industry section) 38

Per OED, paprika designating a dish is the earliest sense, from 1830, first used as paprika soup. Here is the citation from OED:

The pepper soup, or paprika soup..is a favourite dish among the Magyars, Turks, and Servians.
1830 Times 12 Feb. 7/4

Paprika for the powdered spice is from 1839 and paprika for the color (referring to its own orange-red color) is from 1934.

OED adds the note below in the etymology of paprika, for its first usage as a herb in Hungarian:

The plant, originally from the Americas, is said to have been brought to Hungary by the Turks in the 16th cent., and was at first known in Hungarian as Török-bors Turkish pepper. The name paprika first appeared in a book on Hungarian medicinal herbs published in 1775.

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  • It is questionable what these quotations really prove. In two of them paprika appears as a modifier of peppers, rather than a stand-alone term for the fruit; in another it appears in parentheses after peppers, which again casts doubt on whether it can work on its own. The only quotation here in which it is used by itself to denote an individual pepper is from a Malaysian source.
    – jsw29
    Commented Sep 3, 2022 at 15:54
  • I don't see what is questionable. OED makes it clear that there is the usage to refer to the fruit either as paprika or paprika pepper. I just made it clear that paprika is usually understood as the spice in English, especially in culinary context; unless if it is for a specific dish or a Hungarian dish where the fruit (the pepper) is the ingredient.
    – ermanen
    Commented Sep 3, 2022 at 16:04

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