You say ‘hot,’ I say ‘spicy’


Tim Eggert

My harshest sacrifice when returning to NMU after summer-break is the shortage of an authentic Indian restaurant in Marquette. The absence of good Indian food here is hard for me to reconcile because of my regimented diet of eating it at least once a week. Back home, I return to the same restaurant so consistently that they predict my order before I can even say “Namaste.” And, when I’m asked the proverbial question “How spicy?”, I always answer: “Hot.” The caveat to this response; however, is that the typical scale ranks as: mild–medium–spicy.

Because our language lacks an appropriate word for highly spicy flavors, I, like most English speakers, instinctively interchange the adjective “hot” with the adjective “spicy” to qualify the flavor intensity of food. Of course, my friends at the restaurant know that I really mean the most extreme end of the scale, or “spicy,” but to other non-native speakers of English, the substitution of “hot” for “spicy” and vice versa, would be less harmonious.

Other languages maintain two distinct meanings for “hot” and “spicy.” Spanish, for example, employs “caliente” (hot) with a connotation of temperature, whereas “picante” (spicy) carries a sense of seasoned flavor. Either adjective may be used to describe any noun, but the two are not synonymous when referring to the taste of food. Conversely, English couples hot with spicy so that both adjectives hold the same meaning.

When we designate a food as “spicy,” we may mean that the food has a bawdy attitude to it, but, typically, we mean that its taste translates into a lingering, seasoned effect in our mouth. If the food is spiced so that it has an irritable flavor intense enough to stimulate a burning sensation in our mouth, then we deem it “hot.” Hot food could simply be food that is at a warm temperature when served, but, most often, we imply that the food causes our mouth to feel smoldering.

The limitation of English not carrying an adjective that specifically represents the super-spicy sensation is that we resort to “hot” to describe taste, rather than to describe temperature. Since the “hotness” of a food is essentially derived from its spiciness, the substitution of one adjective for the other is problematic: what is spicy in flavor may be hot in temperature, but what is hot in temperature may not be spicy in flavor.

Our linguistic dilemma, then, is expressing the most extreme sensations of spice with a word that represents a food as “hot,” independent from the connotation of physical temperature. “Piquant” comes close to describing super-spiciness in terms of flavor, but it fails to drop its synonymous meaning with “hot.” We may hyphenate the adjectives so that if a food is so spicy that it “burns” our mouths, it is “spicy-hot,” but, this term seems cumbersome, and it would require the rebranding of hot sauces across aisles.

If we borrow language from the culture that a food originates from to describe its flavor, then we may avoid the term “hot foods” altogether. For instance, “These tacos are super-hot!” becomes: “These tacos are super picante!” Americanized wasabi is notoriously “spicy-hot” in the United States, but traditionally sustains a fresh, botanical taste in authentic Japanese cuisine. In conversation, an English characterization of wasabi as “hot” would be especially troublesome to a native speaker of Japanese, because the spread and its sushi counterpart are served cold. Strictly adhering to traditional ingredients, therefore, prevents the adaptation of English to describe foreign flavors.

Ultimately, how we use our language influences how the language itself evolves. Casually exercising a single adjective to convey multiple meanings not only detracts from the subtleties of other, more befitting adjectives, but homogenizes our language. Ambiguous meanings of words reduce the diversity of vocabulary, and bottleneck the development of English as a globally-spoken language. Until we resolve the spicy-hot dilemma; however, I’ll continue to interchange the adjectives and patronize my favorite Indian restaurant.