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Forklore: The roots of pepper

November 13, 2011 |  6:30 pm

Forklore1Another in our series of rediscovered gems from food historian Charles Perry:

Our word pepper comes, by way of Greek, from the Sanskrit name of a cousin of black pepper known as long pepper (Piper longum). While black pepper comes in little round wrinkled peppercorns, long pepper takes the form of curved stalks about three quarters of an inch long that consist of a lot of tiny, dusty, grayish, pepperish things. Probably in the beginning the Greeks were importing long pepper, some varieties of which are hotter than black pepper. By Roman times, though, black pepper had won the taste test, because the Latin word piper meant our familiar black pepper.

The proper Sanskrit name for black pepper was marica , which became mirch in Hindi. (Like us, when the Indians encountered the chile pepper, they called it "red pepper"-- lal mirch.) Most of the spice trade went through the Near East and the Mediterranean, but pepper was also traded overland across the Silk Road countries into Eastern Europe. As it traveled, the word adapted itself to the pronunciation of the local languages. Mirch became murch (as it still is in Uzbekistan), then burch, and at the end of the line burish.

It was in this battered form that the word reached the Ukraine in the Middle Ages. And that's how it is that the word for pepper is boros in Hungarian and perets in Russian. If you want to look at it that way, Russian and Hungarian are the only European languages that use the correct word for pepper.

--Charles Perry