Mexican X Part IV: You Say “Tomato,” I Say You’re Missing a Syllable, Bro!

David Bowles
4 min readOct 1, 2018

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.

Dozens of species of tomatoes exist.

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…

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David Bowles

A Mexican American author & translator from South Texas. Teaches literature & Nahuatl at UTRGV. VP of the Texas Institute of Letters.