Etymology of “tomato” in Europe and the Mediterranean
It’s been an extremely hot summer, which has led to a bumper crop of tomatoes. The harvest is so big that I’ve been bringing them to work to give to colleagues. I work in a very international office, and recently the discussion turned to how to say “tomato” in everyone’s native language. The results were interesting, and inspired this map (mouse over each country for more details):
The tomato plant is native to South America, but was first domesticated by the Aztecs in present-day Mexico. Their word for the fruit was tomatl*, which means something like “the swelling fruit”. The Spanish brought it to the New World in the 16th century, calling it a tomate.
Many languages still use a derivative of the Spanish word tomate, but another name arose in Italy. The Italian word for tomato is pomodoro, which came from pomo d’oro, or golden apple. Somehow** that name spread to Poland, where they say pomidor, and from there to Russian, Ukrainian, and several other languages.
A different name arose in some German dialects: Paradiesapfel, or “apple of paradise”, which for anyone who has eaten a ripe one right from the vine is an apt description. Although modern Germans way tomate, Austrians call it a paradieser, and variants of this were adapted into Czech, Slovak, Hungarian, Serbian and others.
In Arabic, it seems there are two common ways to say “tomato” (At least that’s what my friends tell me. I’d be happy for feedback from any Arabic linguists out there.) There’s tamatim (طماطم), which is used in North Africa. That, of course, comes from tomate. But in the Near East (Syria, Jordan, Lebanon), the common term is banadora (بندورة), from the pomo d’oro family.
It gets really interesting in Hebrew, which has a word for tomato unlike any other language. The word is agvania (עגבניה). It was coined only in 1886 and has as its root the Hebrew word for “to love, desire”. This name was chosen because of the archaic English term “love apple”, an homage to the apparent aphrodisiac properties of the tomato. More on the story of the Hebrew word here.
So there you have it. Pretty interesting for a fruit (vegetable?) only introduced to much of the world a few hundred years ago. Sources for map include Google Translate and Cultivated Vegetables of the World: A Multilingual Onomasticon, an actual book that actually exists. I made the map in CartoDB using the Watercolor base map from Stamen Design. If you want to see more etymology maps, there’s a subreddit dedicated to the topic.
And if all that hasn’t made you hungry from some apples of paradise, this will:
UPDATE: A few readers have correctly pointed out that what I have is a map of nation states, not a map of languages. For the sake of simplicity I am using national borders as a proxy for language regions. I should have specified that I selected the language for each country based on the official language, or if there is more than one, the most commonly spoken language. One negative consequence of that approach is that several states languages did not make it onto the map (e.g. Basque (tomate or tomatea) and Kurdish (temate)).
* More precisely, “tomatl” comes from the Nahuatl words “tomohuac” (swelling, roundness, fatness) and “atl” (water).
** I have subsequently been informed that “pomodoro” was introduced to Poland by the Italian noblewoman Bona Sforza, who became Queen of Poland by marriage in 1518.
Thanks to the members of reddit.com/r/etymologymaps for the helpful feedback and corrections
12 thoughts on “I Say Tomato, You Say… Apple of Paradise?”
Having had the opportunity to taste of the bounty of your garden, I can only say that I am sorry to have departed the country and those tomatoes. Speaking from memory only, no research, I think I recall that the tomato was grown only as an ornamental in the American colonies and was considered poisonous. I believe Thomas Jefferson is credited with discovering the safety and delight of eating love apples.
Hahaha, you made it! 🙂 Glad to see that our lunch conversation between colleagues was a source of inspiration. And glad to see the answers. Thanks 🙂
Glad to liked it! And thanks for the idea!!
Hey! Does not pomodoro derive from “apple of the moors”? I also heard the version about “apple of love” (adore) calling to its aphrodisiac qualities.
Hi Slava! Yes, I also read about those possible derivations of pomodoro, but the pomo d’oro version was the most widely accepted. I suppose we’ll never know for sure.
Very interesting article as I’m a linguist (speak 5 languages)… small correction, this letter inversion happens often, in German/Austria it is “Paradiesapfel” or “Paradieser”
Thanks very much for your comment and I’m glad you liked the post! I have made the correction to both the post and map.
In the Habsburg Empire (Austro-Hungarian Monarchy later) the fruit arrived from the Balkans, so, probably, the etimology also reflects the (serbian?) origins and not the other way around. It was definitely not introduced from Austria in this region.
I travel and learn many languages and appreciate your work on the etymology. I am curious, how does the “jitomate” and “tomate” distinction occur in Mexico? It is interesting, also, that in croatia, there are words for tomato with croat, german, hungarian and italian roots, all exactly as you said. It is spot on.
Also, is there any way you can provide some tips on what most varieties of tomato from Mesoamerica were developed for? What type of soil? What kind of climate? What pH? And is there any connection to its nutrient (or allergenic properties) that add to the history? are there certain groups that are more allergic? are there certain blood types for whom it is more beneficial?
Thanks for this! You might also be interested to know that in Persian (“Farsi”), the language of Iran, the word for tomato isگوجه فرنگی, which means “French plum,” presumably because it was introduced to the Persians by the French, likely during the 19th century, when many rich Persians traveled to France and studied there (it was also during this time that Persians picked up some French words, like “merci,” which is very commonly used to this day).
Romanian: tomată (rare, from French), pătlăgea roșie (red tomato, rare), or simply roșie (red) where pătlăgea loan word from Turkish: patlican (that would be British English/French aubergine, Amer. Eng. eggplant) which comes from persian (farsi) and ultimately from Sanskrit.
Fascinating! yes in Syria it is called “banadora”, if you want to use a more formal high Arabic, you would write “tamatem” and…. the most fascinating is the older generation of the city of Aleppo call it “Franji” which is derived from the El Franj (the Francophon, a. k. a. French). This implies that it was introduced by the Western colonization. Well thanks French people!!