In my nature photography blog the other day I showed a close-up of a native bee heavily coated in pollen inside the flower of a prickly pear cactus. Some research indicated that the bee could well be in the genus Megachile, and my mind immediately began to play with that word as if it were made up of the prefix mega-, meaning ‘great,’ and chile ‘a type of spicy pepper.’ Well, what can you expect? I do live in Texas, after all, where hot sauce festivals are a fact of life.
So is etymology, and that’s what you’re here for. The Spaniards who colonized Mexico transformed the Nahuatl word for the spicy pepper, chilli, into chile, and English, in adopting the noun from Spanish, has spelled it in various ways, at least three of which are still in use: chilli, chili, and chile.
From chile came the Spanish verb enchilar ‘to season with chile,’ and from that came the particular food that English now likewise calls an enchilada. Mexican cuisine has become so familiar in the United States that English even has two idioms with that word in it: the big enchilada, meaning ‘the most important person in an organization,’ and the whole enchilada, which is to say ‘the whole matter, the whole thing.’
© 2013 Steven Schwartzman