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Why is a tomato called a love apple?

Don't let pronunciation of the word "tomato" ruin your love. See pictures of heirloom tomatoes.
Andy Sotiriou/Photodisc/Getty Images

The 1937 film "Shall We Dance" featured "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off," a song penned by George and Ira Gershwin. The ditty is a rundown of all the words that two lovebirds pronounce differently, thanks to their accents -- words like bananas, either and oysters. Because the pair can't see eye-to-eye on these matters, the song goes, they should just nip this affair in the bud right now.

"Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" makes brief note of the fact that half of the couple prefers the pronunciation "tomato," while the other half prefers "tomahto." But this disagreement merely scratches the surface of what to call a tomato, and if the Gershwins had decided to write the entire song about tomatoes, they would have had ample material. For example, when this couple refers to tomatoes, are they thinking of beefsteak, heirloom or cherry tomatoes? Do they prefer varietals like the Abraham Lincoln, the Fourth of July or the Black Russian? Would they rather we refer to the tomato's formal botanical classification, Lycopersicon esculentum, which translates as "edible wolf peach" [source: Ray]? And does anyone in this relationship prefer calling tomatoes "love apples," as they are sometimes known?

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We can thank the Aztecs for the tomato, both the name in English (which is derived from the Aztec word "tomatl") and the food itself. One of the first references to tomatoes in historical documents mentions that Aztecs who practiced cannibalism used the red fruit as a side dish to the main course of human flesh [source: Epstein]. When the tomato made its way to Europe, many were convinced that the fruit was poisonous, because it was classified alongside the deadly belladonna and nightshade. So how does a food associated with cannibalism and believed to be toxic become known as the love apple?

Are tomatoes responsible for an amorous mood?
Are tomatoes responsible for an amorous mood?
©iStockphoto.com/g_studio

In 1544, Italian herbalist Pietro Andrae Matthioli made the first reference to the tomato's presence in Europe when he wrote about the "pomi d'oro," or apples of gold [source: Smith]. It's likely that the first tomatoes in Europe were yellow ones, hence the golden description. Matthioli went on to classify them as similar to the mandrake plant. As we mentioned on the first page, the mandrake plant was associated with many poisonous plants, such as nightshade, but it also renowned for its aphrodisiac qualities. In the book of Genesis, Rachel and Leah concocted a love potion out of mandrake roots; the Hebrew word for mandrake, "dudaim," can be translated as "love apples" or "love plants" [source: Smith]. Some foods prominently featuring spaghetti are associated with sex to this day; consider the 20th century creation of puttanesca sauce, which is translated as "whore's spaghetti" [source: Seed].

While it's possible that tomatoes are called love apples because of their aphrodisiacal qualities, there is one other theory to consider, which unfortunately is much less spicy than the first one. This theory has to do with how the tomato migrated through Europe. Spanish travelers brought tomatoes to Europe in the 16th century; as we mentioned, the Italians deemed them pomi d'oro. But at this time, there were Moors in Spain, and they took the tomato back to Morocco, where they called it pomi dei mori, or "apple of the Moors." When the French got hold of the tomato, they called it "pommes d'amour," or apples of love. Did they call it that because of its association with the mandrake plant, or was it simply a linguistic slip-up? It's possible that "pommes d'amour" was derived from its similarity to "pomi dei mori" or even "pomi d'oro" [source: Ray].

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Today, Italians still love a good pomodoro, while English-speaking people use the Aztec-inspired word tomato. But regardless what you call it, there's plenty more to learn about this fleshy fruit. Head on over to the next page for more great articles on tomatoes.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

Sources

  • Epstein, Jason. "Food: Oh Sweet Poison!" New York Times. Aug. 5, 1990. (Oct. 20, 2009)http://www.nytimes.com/1990/08/05/magazine/food-oh-sweet-poison.html
  • Harvey, Mark, Stephen Quilley, Huw Beynon. "Exploring the Tomato: Transformations of Nature, Society and Economy." Edward Elgan Publishing. 2002. (Oct. 20, 2009)http://books.google.com/books?id=9oaA10iuuMsC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_navlinks_s#v=onepage&q=&f=false
  • "Pomme d'Amour Tomato." Monticello Catalog. (Oct. 20, 2009)http://www.monticellocatalog.org/600067.html
  • Ray, C. Claiborne. "Q&A." New York Times. July 5, 1994. (Oct. 20, 2009)http://www.nytimes.com/1994/07/05/science/q-a-584371.html
  • Roberts, Diane. "You Say Tomato, I Say 'Love Apple.'" NPR Weekend Edition. July 26, 2009. (Oct. 20, 2009)http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=106932330
  • Seed, Diane. "The Top One Hundred Pasta Sauces." Ten Speed Press. 1987. (Oct. 20, 2009)http://books.google.com/books?id=5JfdNVZlwA0C&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_navlinks_s#v=onepage&q=&f=false
  • Sietsema, Robert. "Care for something saucy?" Salon. Feb. 13, 2007. (Oct. 20, 2009)http://www.salon.com/mwt/food/eat_drink/2007/02/13/aphrodisiac/print.html
  • Smith, Andrew F. "The Tomato in America: Early History, Culture and Cookery." University of South Carolina Press. 1994. (Oct. 20, 2009)http://books.google.com/books?id=Fyp86n6dQJwC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_navlinks_s#v=onepage&q=&f=false
  • "Tomato." Encyclopedia Britannica. 2009.
  • Yang, Linda. "Garden Q&A." New York Times. Dec. 24, 1992. (Oct. 20, 2009)http://www.nytimes.com/1992/12/24/garden/garden-q-a.html

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