Mexican X Part IV: You Say “Tomato,” I Say You’re Missing a Syllable, Bro!
Tomatoes are freaking everywhere in global cuisine. It’s almost impossible to imagine life (pizza!) without the fat, red, dimpled spheres.
Weird thing is, we got the name wrong.
Ready to learn why? It’s all about the “x,” of course!
It’s no secret (I hope) that “tomato” comes from Spanish “tomate,” which in turn comes from a Nahuatl word: “tomatl.” This berry of the nightshade Solanum lycopersicum was bred by Mesoamerican farmers over millennia till it reached its present big redness.
But wait! The Nahua peoples enjoyed lots of different sorts of “tomatoes,” all with different names: cōātomatl (snake tomato), coyōtomatl (coyote tomato), izhuatomatl (husk tomato), and so on. That last category contained what we now call “cherry tomatoes” and “tomatillos.” Small things.
And here’s the rub. The small, green, husk-enveloped fruit we call “tomatillos”? Those are “tomatl” in Nahuatl. We should be calling them “tomatoes” in English.
The big, fat, red or yellow ones? Those were known as “xītomatl.”
“So what happened, David?” I can hear you wondering. “What happened to the ‘x’?”
You’ll recall from my other Mexican X threads (I’ll link to them below if you haven’t read them yet) that the “sh” sound represented by “x” in Spanish transcription of Nahuatl shifted by the end of the 16th century to an aspirated “h” sound.
That gave us “jitomate” in Spanish. The smaller varieties became “tomate.” However, over time, the two words merged as that initial syllable was elided (not everywhere in Mexico, because many people even today call the red variety “jitomate”). We saw the same elision as “tlālcacahuatl” became “cacahuate.”
Because of the diminutive -illo ending in Spanish, it was relatively easy to create a neologism that allowed people to keep differentiating between xītomatl and tomatl: “tomatillo” (little tomato).
“Tomatillo” has other names in Nahuatl & Mexican Spanish, of course. The Nahuah sometimes called it “mīltomatl” (“field tomato,” i.e., cultivated), which gave rise to the word “miltomate.” I have always called it “tomate fresadilla,” though other Spanish speakers say “tomate de fresadilla.” There’s also “tomate de cáscara,” “tomate milpero,” and “tomate verde.” Green tomato. That’s a little deceptive, however, because this is a different species than the jitomate. Two, actually. Physalis philadelphica and Physalis ixocarpa.
The upshot is that, though some folks in Mexico and the US insist on using jitomate instead of tomate, it isn’t absolutely necessary. Still, out of linguistic accuracy and a desire to decolonize as much as possible, we Chicanos and Mexicans may consider the older forms.
There are 2 competing theories about the origin of “xītomatl” (the first syllable is pronounced roughly like the English word “she”). Frances Karttunen and others suggest it means “peeled / skinned tomato,” incorporating the root of “xīpēhua,” the verb for “to peel, skin, or flay.”
Normally that root would be “xīp-,” but it appears there’s an alternate form “xī-,” as in “xītoma” (to scrape away or peel off the skin of something), which itself is made up of “xī-” and “toma” (to loosen or unwrap). That seems to be a reference to the calyx or husk of the tomato.
As you probably know, he “tomatl” has a distinctive husk that one must peel away.
The bigger “xītomatl” has been engineered to the point that this calyx is just a strange spiky hat sitting atop the fruit.
As you can see in the above image, its “izhuatl” or husk has been stripped away by centuries of breeding. Hence the name.
The competing theory says that “xītomatl” is a variant of “xīctomatl,” which literally means “navel tomato.” The idea is that it’s a blend of “tomatl” and “xīctli” (belly button … referring, one assumes, to the dimple at the top).
But it’s also quite likely that “xīctomatl” is just another variety of tomato rather than the origin of “xītomatl.” Only one colonial source records the word, Francisco Javier Clavijero Echegaray, writing about Nahuatl and pre-Colombian Mexico in the mid 18th century (compared to dozens upon dozens of attestations of “xītomatl”).
What about “tomatl”? Does it mean anything in particular? I mentioned the verb “toma,” meaning “to loosen or unwrap.” The implication is “to loosen a wrapping because something’s getting bigger.” The reflexive of the verb, “motoma” means “to get bigger.”
Check out these related words: “tomactic” (thick), “tomacpōl” (fat), “tomactli” (bulging), “tomactontli” (chubby).
You get the picture. Round fat thing.
Here’s a bit of bad-ass trivia. “Tomatl” was used in a metaphorical sense to mean “a person without defects.” So if you call me “tomato face” or “tomatón,” I’ll take it as a compliment.
That about wraps this article up. If you’re speaking Mexican Spanish (or its Chicano cousins), you might consider using “jitomate” just for fun, linguistic accuracy, and respect for indigenous roots.
In English … damn. We’re screwed. But we could start a trend, yeah?
Call ’em “she-tomatoes.” I like that.
Organic she-tomatoes FTW!
Now, go have a salad … or some salsa … or a pizza … or spaghetti.
And be sure to check out the other Mexican X articles: