Szechuan pepper

Victor Steinbok aardvark66 at GMAIL.COM
Sat Jan 28 13:56:59 UTC 2012

Actually, this comment is about more than just "Szechuan pepper". First,
"Szechuan" is the correction preferred by the Windows 7 built-in
spell-checker. The same spelling is in the OED entry, with the only
listed alternative form Szechwan. The etymology note gives "< Chinese
/Si-chua-n/", but no such allowances are made for spelling forms, with
not a single example listing the Sichuan form. Yet Sichuan is the
preferred Wiki form and one that perhaps is more commonly encountered
today. And Sichuan occurs in quite a number of occasions in OED quotes,
so it is somewhat surprising that no mention of it is made.

Another oddity is the fact that the Szechuan entry is for noun only,
with the usual qualifier "used attrib." Yet, Szechuanese is listed both
as adjective and noun, with the noun covering the "dialect" and the
residents of Szechuan.

But consider one of the examples under adj.:

> 1980 E. Behr /Getting Even/ vii. 89   There was the smell of real
> Szechuanese cooking, chillies and hot sesame oil.

Now, just over 30 years later (at least, in the US), this is more like
to appear as

> There was the smell of real Szechuan cooking, chillies and hot sesame oil.

Following the OED convention, this case is merely "attrib.", despite
appearance to the contrary. In fact, only "Szechuan-style" is considered
an adjective, e.g.

> 1979 /United States 1980/81/ (Penguin Travel Guides) 179   Honolulu
> also has several Mandarin or Szechwan-style Chinese restaurants.

But compare all the forms of Szechuan to Taiwan. Both form adjectives
with -ese, but Taiwan rarely appears in "attrib." position, while such
usage of Szechuan is pervasive (complete with "Sichuan Garden", "Sichuan
Cuisine" and "Sichuan Delight" restaurants gracing virtually every major
US city). On the other hand, "Taiwanese" is much more common than
"Szechuanese". I've had similar concern about other "attrib." entries,
but here there may be an additional complication that the -an ending may
be re-interpreted as an adjectival suffix. (Compare Moldova/Moldavia -->
Moldovan/Moldavian) Yunnan and Hunan suffer similar fates, while Taiwan
really becomes an exception rather than the rule. (Note that OED has no
entries for Hunan and Yunnan, while the entries for Hunanese and
Yunanese are similar to Szechuanese in every way.) I would argue that
"Szechuan hotpot" (ma la hotpot) is not "hotpot of Szechuan" but short
for "Szechuan-style hotpot", i.e., an adjective.

Returning back to the spelling issue, there is no "Szechuan pepper" in
the current OED at all. But there are two quotations that mention
"Sichuan pepper".

Galanga n.
> 2000 A. Dalby /Dangerous Tastes/ 78   Five-spice powder ... . In China
> itself the typical mixture is likely to include Sichuan pepper and
> perhaps fennel or licorice or dried ginger or galanga.

Pepper n. 1.b.
> 1991 /Chile Pepper/ *5* ii. 45   The brown or black seeds are also
> marketed under the name 'Sichuan pepper' or 'Chinese pepper' and are
> highly aromatic with hints of citrus.

This is not particularly surprising, as "Sichuan pepper" is one of the
latest "in" spices (since the FDA ban on its Chinese imports had been
lifted in 2005) and usually occurs with that particular spelling (at
least, in the US--can't really speak for the rest of the world).

But this is further complicated by frequent attempts to anglicize such
things. Virtually every package of Sichuan pepper that is imported from
China is /not/ labeled as Sichuan pepper, but instead reads "Prickly
ash". Right now I am looking at a package of spices from Chuanzhen
Industry Co. whose English label reads "Green Prickly Ash".

Prickly ash does appear under prickly adj. Special Uses S2.

> prickly ash n. any of various North American prickly shrubs or trees:
> /spec./ /(a) /a shrub with spiny bark, the devil's walking stick,
> /Aralia spinosa/ (family /Araliaceae/); /(b) /any of several spiny or
> prickly pinnate-leaved shrubs or trees of the genus /Zanthoxylum/
> (family /Rutaceae/), /esp./ either of two shrubs whose aromatic bark
> is used medicinally, the toothache tree, /Z. americanum/ and the
> Hercules' club /Z. clava-herculis/.

It is interesting that only North American varieties are mentioned for
both (a) and (b) and only the use of the aromatic bark enters into the
the picture (correctly identifying it as the "toothache tree"). But Wiki
description of Sichuan pepper expands on this a bit.

> Sichuan pepper (or Szechuan pepper) is the outer pod of the tiny fruit
> of a number of species in the genus /Zanthoxylum/ (most commonly /Z.
> piperitum/, /Z. simulans/, and /Z. schinifolium/), widely grown and
> consumed in Asia as a spice.

So this is indeed the same genus as the North American prickly ash. This
sounds to me like a pretty good reason to expand the definition.

The third component of this is the fact that the Japanese version of
this spice is usually labeled "sansho" or "sansho pepper" (although
other names include "Chinese pepper", "Japanese pepper", "Indonesian
lemon pepper", etc.). The Wiki article contains an explanation that the
Japanese name is a direct borrowing of one of the Chinese names, which
is translated as "mountain pepper", rather than a corruption of Sichuan.
Most dictionaries, including the OED, do not have a sansho entry.

A brief follow up on the galanga entry mentioned above. The OED has both
Galanga and Galangal entries, with the former simply diverting to the
latter in definition, while possessing a separate list of forms and a
separate etymology note. That seems odd, particularly given one of the
quotations under galangal:

> 1867 K. L. Dey /Indigenous Drugs India/ 11   The tubers of Alpinia
> Galanga ... are faintly aromatic, pungent, and somewhat bitter, and
> are sold by the name of galangal by native druggists.

Both forms appear to have coexisted virtually from the start.

There is an interesting twist on this, provided by GoogleTranslate.
Galangal is "translated" into Dutch as is--perhaps reflecting the
supposed translation, but more likely simply reflecting lack of a
corresponding entry. Galanga is translated as Galangawortel. But if you
shop for galangal powder at a Dutch supermarket, you will not find it
under any name even remotely resembling either of these--instead, the
label would reflect its Indochinese (or Indonesian) origin--"Laos". ( )

Translating into Russian has the opposite effect--"galanga" is
unchanged, indicating lack of the corresponding entry, while "galangal"
is translated as "kalgan" (long used as a traditional medicinal plant).


The American Dialect Society -

More information about the Ads-l mailing list