Pepper has been used as a spice in India since prehistoric times. Pepper is native to India and has been known to Indian cooking since at least 2000 BCE. J. Innes Miller notes that while pepper was grown in southern Thailand and in Malaysia, its most important source was India, particularly the Malabar Coast, in what is now the state of Kerala. Peppercorns were a much prized trade good, often referred to as "black gold" and used as a form of commodity money.
Black pepper is a flowering vine in the family Piperaceae, cultivated for its fruit, which is usually dried and used as a spice and seasoning. The same fruit is also used to produce white pepper, red/pink pepper, and green pepper. Black pepper is native to South India (Tamil: milagu, மிளகு; Telugu: miriyam) and is extensively cultivated there and elsewhere in tropical regions. The fruit, known as a peppercorn when dried, is a small drupe five millimetres in diameter, dark red when fully mature, containing a single seed.
Dried ground pepper is one of the most common spices in European cuisine and its descendants, having been known and prized since antiquity for both its flavour and its use as a medicine. The spiciness of black pepper is due to the chemical piperine. Ground black peppercorn, usually referred to simply as "pepper", may be found on nearly every dinner table in some parts of the world, often alongside table salt.
The word "pepper" is derived from the Sanskrit pippali, the word for long pepper via the Latin piper which was used by the Romans to refer both to pepper and long pepper, as the Romans erroneously believed that both of these spices were derived from the same plant. The English word for pepper is derived from the Old English pipor. The Latin word is also the source of German pfeffer, French poivre, Dutch peper, and other similar forms. In the 16th century, pepper started referring to the unrelated New World chile peppers as well. "Pepper" was used in a figurative sense to mean "spirit" or "energy" at least as far back as the 1840s; in the early 20th century, this was shortened to pep.