In these virus anxious days we look for the small wonders that are still present in our lives. (What can we say?  We read Pollyanna at an impressionable age and one of us has played the ‘glad game’ in one form or another consistently throughout their lives!)

Every day we take a photo of something we’ve noticed in our restricted environment that we regard as a small wonder and share the tale behind it before the sun sets. Inevitably in the revealing, we view the wonder orthographically.


One of my earliest memories is triggered by the smell of tomato plants and this always leads me to my grandparents’ garden. My father’s parents were market gardeners and even in their retirement they grew seedlings in hothouses and kept abundant vegetable and flower gardens. I loved the narrow paths between the beds and loved trailing my grandfather watching him stake tomatoes.


The heirloom tomatoes are grown by keen gardeners who share the bounty of their garden with the neighbourhood via an honesty box: parsley, zucchini, beans, eggs, whatever is ready to harvest.

Tomato is a free base element with a small morphological family: tomato, tomatoes, tomatoey. However, it compounds readily: tomato soup, tomato sauce, tomato blight, tomato chutney – these,  although presenting as two separate words, are open compounds.

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The word tomato, like all words, has an intriguing tale, one of exploration, cultural contact, conquest, trade and exchange.  Tomato was attested in English as tomate in 1604 from earlier Spanish tomate with its roots in Nauhatl – the language of the Aztecs, tomatl.

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Tomatoes arrived in Europe following the conquest of New Spain ( Mexico) between 1519-1521 by Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes. In the 16th century the tomato in Europe was a botanical curiosity.  When the tomato reached Italy it was given an Italian name and referred to as pomodoro rather than adopting an approximation of the Aztec name as did Spain, France and England. Sienese Mattioli, renowned physician and investigator of the medicinal properties of plants, noted in 1595 that “a new species of eggplant had been brought to Italy in our time” describing its blood red or golden flesh when mature noting these fruits are called pomi d’oro denoting golden fruits in vernacular Italian (Gentilcore, D. Pomodoro!). This was a generic name for many soft fruits including figs.


Grand Duke Cosimo de Medici by Bronzino,1545. This was painted just 3 years before the first recorded sighting of tomatoes in Italy. This sighting occurred when De Medici was presented with a basket of tomatoes from his estate near Florence on October 31st,1548. His steward writing to the Medici secretary noted the safe arrival of the produce:’And the basket was opened and they looked at one another with much thoughtfulness.’ Tomatoes, as in this encounter, were for many years objects of wonder rather than consumption.

It took three centuries for the tomato to shake off the suspicious doubts and anxieties – it was after all a member of the deadly nightshade family. When the tomato arrived in England it was grown as an ornamental species and consumed by only a brave few. An encyclopedia of 1753 reflects the underlying doubts and prejudices shown towards the tomato’s foreignness:  “a fruit eaten either stewed or raw by the Spaniards and Italians and by the Jew families of England.” (Online Etymology Dictionary)

Tomato and calligraphy

‘Matagon Lilly and Tomato’ by Joris Hoefnagel (illuminator) and Georg Bocskay (scribe): script (1561-1562), illumination (1591-1596). This is one of the earliest paintings of tomatoes in Europe.

The spelling of tomato took some time to settle:

tommato, tormato, termarter, termater, termatter, tomarto, tomater, tomayto, tamayda, tamayta, termagter, termayter, tomaty even  tomatum (OED)

Eliza Acton, English food writer and poet (1799 –1859), referred to it as tomata in 1845 but by 1861 Mrs Beeton was writing it as tomato. It was around 1900 that the name tomato became the norm.( Ayto, J. Diner’s Dictionary)

Tomato despite its frequent appearance in our meals, still has an exotic aura about it with its final unitary grapheme <o> . Tomato keeps company with other exotics like: armadillo (1577), flamingo 1589, poncho 1717, garbanzo 1759, pampero (1771) the chilling wind blowing from the Andes across the pampas toward the Atlantic, fiasco 1855, finnesko (1890) a boot made from birch tanned reindeer hide with hair left on the outside, gelato (1932), macchiato (1989,) and galactico (2003) a celebrated footballer (soccer), often bought by a team for a very large fee.

Yet, unlike the examples above, tomato is not quite a loan word. A ‘loan word’ word is one adopted into English from another language with little or no adjustment to its spelling and one that does not conform to the English spelling patterns and conventions. However tomato has changed; that final <l> in Nahautal is shed during its Spanish sojourn replaced by an <e> and then in English that final <e> was eventually replaced by a final <o>.

The OED suggests that the final <o> of tomato occurred partly because of uncertainty about the quality of unstressed final vowels in Romance loanwords, and partly because of its association with potato, attested earlier in English in 1565. Tomatoes and potatoes, both arrivals from the New World, were regarded with both wonder and suspicion and the final <o reinforces this exotic aura as native English polysyllables do not have a final unitary grapheme <o>.  However, many of these words have their origins in Spanish or Italian with the suffix <-o > indicating that it is the singular masculine noun form.  This is not the case for either tomato or potato.

Potato and tomato are frequent in use and have assimilated sufficiently into English to conform to its suffixing conventions. Polysyllabic words with a final <o> that have become frequent in the host language, will take the long form of the plural, the suffix <-es>. When words are common and entrenched, they will conform to English orthographic conventions. Their status as loan words diminishes.

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These polysyllabic ‘words while familiar still maintain their ‘loan status’. As loans they take the short form of the plural suffix <-s> rather than the long form <-es> typical of nativised words conforming to English conventions.

The British pronunciation ⁄ təˈmɑːtəʊ ⁄ with ‘long’  ⁄ɑː ⁄ is typical of foreign loanwords adopted into English after the Great Vowel Shift. It reflects the ‘substitution of the closest English equivalents for the vowels in the donor language’ (OED). On the other hand the most common U.S. pronunciation  ⁄ təˈmeɪdoʊ ⁄ is comparable with pre Great Vowel shift ‘loanwords’  where the Middle English long a was diphthongized’ (OED)

The orthography of a word is so much more than surface accuracy. In this musing on tomato we’ve seen that ‘English, perhaps more than any other language, is an insatiable borrower’ (Crystal); it’s an accommodating host. In tomato lies the past and present: tales of cultural exchange, exploration and trade, suspicion of the new, and gradual  acceptance. Our meals would be so much the blander without its crimson juicy presence.

Pablo Neruda too appreciated the ordinary and in it saw the extraordinary. It seems apt to finish with the final lines of his Ode to Tomatoes from Odas elementales (1954)

‘and on

the table, at the midpoint

of summer,

the tomato,

star of earth,


and fertile



its convolutions,

its canals,

its remarkable amplitude

and abundance

no pit

no husk

no leaves or thorns

the tomato offers

 its gift

of fiery colour

and cool completeness.’

 Pablo Neruda