At Last, Pomedorn!

On Language

By Philologos

Published February 25, 2009, issue of March 06, 2009.
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A t last, tomatoes! Forward reader Herbert Hoffman’s request to know why they are called pomedorn in Yiddish finally gets its answer.

There are actually two answers, a short and a long one. The short one is that Yiddish pomedor (the singular form) comes from the same word in Polish.

The long one is that Polish took the word from French, French from Italian, and Italian from Latin — and if we want to make it even longer, there’s English, Hebrew and Nahuatl, too.

Let’s start with Nahuatl, the Aztec language of Mexico. It was in Mexico that the Spanish conquistadors found the tomato, which had spread there from its original home in the Andes. They brought it back with them to Europe. The Aztecs, who liked to eat a tomato sauce with hot peppers, called the fruit xitómatl, and the conquistadors shortened this to tomate, a word that appears in Spanish as far back as 1532.

Yet, apart from southern Italy, to which it arrived via Spanish-controlled Naples, the tomato was rarely eaten in Europe before the 18th century. A member of the solanum family and a close relative of the deadly nightshade, it was widely believed to be poisonous and was at first grown solely for its ornamental fruit and supposed medicinal properties. In the United States, it was not considered an edible food until even later. There are many stories in American folklore about the first American to brave death by eating a tomato, the most renowned being a certain Robert Gibbon Johnson, who allegedly devoured one grown in his garden on the courthouse steps of Salem, N.J., in 1820 and miraculously survived.

One of the tomato’s effects was thought to be aphrodisiac; thus, already in the 16th century we find it referred to in English as a “love apple,” a term echoed by the now equally archaic German Liebesapfel and French pomme d’amour. But the first-known botanical description of the tomato, published in Latin in 1544 by the Italian Piero Andrea Mattioli, called it, because of its yellowish-red color, not a “love apple” but a “golden apple,” malum aureum. (Among the most ubiquitous of fruits, apples have commonly been used in many languages, in conjunction with various modifiers, to describe new fruits or vegetables coming from elsewhere. To take a few other examples, we have our English custard apple; the pomegranate, from old French pomme granate, a “seed apple”; the melon, from ancient Greek melopepon, a “gourd apple”; Dutch aardappel and French pomme de terre, an “earth apple” — that is, the potato — and Yiddish pomerantz, an orange, the first syllable of which is the French pomme, too.) Malum aureum was then translated into Italian as pomo d’oro, which became pomme d’or in French and passed from French into Polish as pomedor.

When did this happen? Here again, we must resort to possible folklore, this time French rather than American. Although by the time of the French Revolution, this version of history goes, the eaten tomato had worked its way up through Italy and become popular in southern France, the snootier Parisians of the north, who set the cultural and culinary tone for sophisticated people all over Europe, wouldn’t touch it; however, when detachments of Southerners marched to Paris in support of the revolution that broke out in 1789–90, they brought along the tomato to eat, and to make sauces from in their campfires, along the way. It was such a detachment from Marseilles, singing its favorite marching song, which also brought to Paris what came to be known as the Marseillaise, the future French national anthem.

The Parisians sniffed, tasted and were smitten — and once they were, the pomme d’or became de rigueur for high-class folk everywhere, including the aristocrats of Poland. More ordinary Eastern Europeans, though, remained even more suspicious of tomatoes than were Americans. Besides pomedorn, Yiddish-speaking Jews called them treyfene eppel, “treyf apples.” They considered them dangerous and stayed away from them.

Eventually, the “golden apple,” or pomme d’or, became archaic in French, turning into the more plebeian la tomate, although Italians still eat pomodori. As for the “love apple,” it has survived, as far as I know, in only one language, albeit in disputed form: our very own Hebrew.

It’s like this: As Hebrew was being revived as a spoken tongue in the late 19th century, an argument broke out between two of its great champions and rival word-coiners, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda and Yechiel Michel Pines. Ben-Yehuda wanted to call the tomato a badura, from Arabic bandura, which itself is from Italian pomodoro. Pines rejected that as non-Hebraic and came back with tapu’ah. agavim, “love apple,” which he then shortened to agvaniya. To this, Ben-Yehuda countered, correctly arguing that the Hebrew verb agav meant to lust, not to love, and suggesting ahaviya, from the verb ahav, which really does mean “to love.” For whatever reason (perhaps lust seemed more treyf than love), agvaniya won out, and generations of Israelis have eaten lust apples ever since. What this has done to sex in the Jewish state remains a topic for further research.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com.


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