My mother's use of the word "spicy" (mild)

This fills me with rage.

I should probably preface this with the fact that I live with my elderly mother to take care of her, and that she and I inherited from my father a profoundly toxic, abusive culture of communication, where words were a symbol of power and the ability to hurt and threaten others without saying so outright. But this still drives me up the fucking wall!

For 99.999% of the English-speaking world, the word ‘spicy’ has one and only one meaning when referring to food - it means that it has capsaicin in it. It means that it contains oils derived from the tissues of one of many different species and cultivars of the capsicum plant. It means that is characterized, in whole or in part, by the presence of a ‘spicy’ mouth-burning flavor, one that is more technically referred to as ‘pungent.’

Not to my mother. Not to this one 69-year-old woman, born and raised in Miami, whose maternal family was from Augusta KY and whose paternal family is from Cincinnati OH. To her, and only to her, despite the fact that she has never in her long life encountered a single other person who speaks this way, spicy means possessing or characterized by the flavor of things colloquially known as “spices.” Like cinnamon, or allspice, or Old Bay, or nutmeg.

Despite the fact that all of these things taste different from one another.

Despite the fact that there is no ‘spice’ compound that interacts with our taste buds.

Despite the fact that no other human being I have ever met uses the word ‘spicy’ like this.

Despite the fact that I’ve pointed all this out to her dozens of times.

Despite the fact that people she’s speaking to have expressed confusion over her word choice dozens of times.

So what word does she use to describe what are more properly called ‘pungent’ foods? She says that they’re hot. That’s her word. “Is the food hot?” “No, it’s cold.” “No, I mean, is it like peppery hot? Does it have a kick to it?” “Oh, do you mean if it’s spicy?” “No, I don’t care if it has cinnamon in it, I want to know if it’s hot or not.”


I hope you feel better after that, but you just Pitted your own mother. This might not work out how you had hoped.
(Your Mother sounds like a real asshole.)

While far from common, she is not the only one to use “spicy” in this context.


For starters, it is very common to describe food as hot if it is spicy. My wife and I frequently specify whether we mean temperature hot or spicy hot.

In terms of calling something spicy just because it has a strong flavor of spices… your mother’s usage seems a little bit too broad for me, but you’re being silly. Tell me, what is the flavor of Hot Tamales? Ooh, here’s Wikipedia’s description: “hot and spicy flavor.” And the source of this hot and spicy flavor? Cinnamon.

And you list Old Bay in your “not spicy” list, but it does actually contain both paprika and crushed red pepper, from the capsicum family and thus, by your own definition, Old Bay is spicy.

You attack allspice, but allspice is said to include several flavors, including that of cinnamon. Which, I’ve already established, is commonly described as hot and spicy.

If you made me vote for your side or your mother’s… right now, your mother is coming out ahead.

I think you need to direct your frustration at the dysfunctional use of language in your household overall, rather than at these specific terms.

This is extremely petty, and I don’t know what the OP means by “pungent.”

Makes sense to me.

Your mother sounds like an ignorant twit. The latter would, of course, be spic**ed. **E.g. spiced wine.
Two can play the prescriptivist fuckwad game !

I’ve heard “spicy” used both ways, plenty of times.

Spice cake doesn’t contain hot peppers.

“Spicy” is a perfectly reasonable term for the smell and taste of spices; you could quite easily walk into, say, a bakery and speak of the “rich, spicy aroma”.

A matter of context.

Or ham (i.e.: SPAM).

Yeah. She’s also not the only one to use “Hot”, as in “Hot Sauce”. But I totally get that sometimes one’s mother just gets on one’s last nerve and it’s mostly not about logic.

My mother never could say common words correctly. “Generic” was “geretic,” a local town is called Tumalo. To her it was always Tumbolt. My mom wasn’t stupid, and she was very well read, but she would drive me around the bend trying to figure out WTF she was talking about sometimes because her pronunciation was atrocious. It’s our parent’s job to annoy and embarrass us.

Oh, yeah? Well, my mother is so fat…

This makes me laugh, because just last night a friend was making the opposite rant.

I’m from northern Kentucky originally (Florence, very close to Cincinnati) and indeed I have used the word “spicy” in the same sense as the OP’s mother. Sorry.

I think the OP should show this post to his mother, and ask her for her interpretation of the term “Hurp Durp.”

I describe a spice cake as spicy. In general I follow OP’s mom’s pattern. In fact I often correct non-native English speakers and tell them that in American English we say “hot” instead of “spicy” to refer to capsaicin-containing foods, because “spicy” means other spices most of the time. Like, say, the aforementioned spice cake, or Indian food, and so on.

Yes, “hot” is indistinct, and so I’ll fall back on “temperature hot,” or (yes, I’m aware of the irony) “spicy hot.”

Well into my adult life, I understood the word “spicy” as OP does, that is, meaning “hot-spicy”. I never cared much for anything “hot-spicy” beyond the very mildly so, and thus I avoided eating all foods that were described as “spicy” because I always thought that meant “hot-spicy”. I was also under the impression that all Mexican food (meaning, “Mexican” as commonly served in American Mexican restaurants) was “spicy”, that is “hot-spicy”.

It was a long time before I dared try Mexican food, which I eventually discovered is mostly not hot-spicy, or only mildly so, and that I actually like it. Likewise with many other ethnic foods, like Indian Tandoori-style fare.

My misunderstanding of “spicy” greatly and stupidly limited my choices of things to eat for a long time.

Mamma mia!

Well, just sticking with the “spicy” means “piquant, hot” definition, no, capsaicin is not required. “Spicy” is used to describe the heat in horseradish, mustard, wasabi, black pepper, even cinnamon and ginger, etc., and none of those have capsaicin. So you are clearly wrong here, unless you don’t use “spicy” to refer to horseradish and mustard, which is very odd to me, as I’ve never heard of anyone making that specific a designation, that spicy must mean capsaicin hot.

I have heard “spicy” used to refer to foods that are heavily spiced. I avoid this usage because the majority of at least American English speaker in my experience equate “spicy” with foods that give some impression of heat or mouth irritation, but your mother’s usage is hardly unique.