Cayenne, French Guiana
We now head to French Guiana, two thousand miles north of Rio de Janeiro, an overseas territory of France roughly the same size as Austria, on the far northeast coast of South America. As for the word we’re here to consider, we’re sticking with the culinary theme after the Brazil nut: the capital of French Guiana is named Cayenne.
We could be wading into another chicken-and-egg scenario: which came first, the cayenne pepper, or the city of Cayenne? But, mercifully, this story is a lot more straightforward than the Brazil vs Brazil nut debate we’ve just engaged in.
Where is Cayenne, French Guiana? – Cayenne, French Guiana Map – Cayenne, French Guiana Map Download Free Photo Gallery
The cayenne pepper is a pungent, spicy-flavoured chilli pepper native to the forests of South America, often sold dried or ground into powder. Its name comes from a local Brazilian Tupi word, kyynha, essentially meaning ‘pepper’ or ‘capsicum’. But the similarity between that native word and the name of the Guianan capital, Cayenne, apparently caused confusion, and as French Guiana became an ever more highly prized territory – changing hands repeatedly between the French, British and Dutch in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries its influence began to tell on the spelling of the pepper.
As a result, by the time the peppers were first being described in English in the mid 1700s, they were known by any one of a variety of similar names – including cayan, kian, chian, chyan and kayan – before the spelling finally standardised as cayenne around the turn of the century.
Two questions remain, then. First, if cayenne derives from kyynha, does that mean that cayenne pepper literally means ‘pepper-pepper’? Yes. Yes, it does.
And second, where does the city name Cayenne itself come from? Founded in 1643 by French colonists, the city was given its present name in 1777; it’s simply the old French form of the name ‘Guyana’. As for the name Guyana – well, perhaps that’s a story to leave for another day. After all, the Caribbean is waiting
If you really want to know, Guyana is thought to come from a local Carib word meaning ‘land of many waters’.