Fun with Language
Paprika vs Peperoni


Today I want to talk about food. To be precise, about bell and hot pepper and the confusion I had to suffer in my childhood.
When I lived at home, I helped my mum grocery shopping. She called the bell pepper “Paprika.” I also enjoyed watching my parents cook (and when I was older helping them.) Cooking was something both my parents did, they had each their own set of receipts and I can now cook them all. Sounds like a wonderful way to learn to cook, and it was, except my dad called bell peppers “Peperoni.” Well, yes, strange, but there are other things with multiple words for it. The confusing issue was, my mum called hot peppers “Peperoni” and my dad called them “Paprika.” And as a person who is sensitive to spicy food, I never knew if “Paprika” or “Peperoni” is the spicy food or not.
Telling the story like I did now, you would think at least I would notice that it was a difference between my parents. But living it, it wasn’t clear at all. I only knew that I cannot distinguish the spicy food from the yummy one!
In my middle twenties, I finally found out what was wrong. I was talking with two friends, one is from Germany, the other from Switzerland. We talked about food and somehow the bell peppers came up – and only a few minutes later they found out: Germany and Switzerland are using the words “reversed.” While in Switzerland “Peperoni” is used for bell pepper, in Germany they are called “Paprika.” And reversed for the hot pepper. Making it a little bit worse, the seasoning is called “Paprika” in both languages with the quantifier “mild” (mild) and “scharf” (hot) to signalize the tanginess.


If you didn’t find out until now: my mum is from Germany and my dad is from Switzerland. I benefit a lot from my mum’s German and it was easier for me to learn “proper” German in school. I don’t have the typical issues with the slightly different sentences structures, or Swiss German words that don’t usually get used in German. I learned that by listening to my parents – and my grandmother who would tell me if she didn’t know a word. Neither at home nor at school was I ever told that “Paprika” has a different meaning, depending on where you are geographically.


And as a side note: it also took me a while to understand that “pepperoni pizza” in America is not something strange and probably “gross” but the common “Salami pizza” and therefore pretty yummy.


I hope you will enjoy your next bell or hot pepper. While you are eating it you can think about all the poor German tourists in Switzerland, the Swiss tourists in Germany and the American tourists in any German speaking country who will get the wrong food after ordering “Peperoni”.