Native Species

The tomato is a star in my family’s diet year-round — pork + tomato noodles, cherry tomatoes in salads…tomato egg soup to accompany every other summertime dinner.

via mr_t_in_dc/Flickr

Being a native Chinese speaker, I’ve long known tomatoes as 番茄 (fānqié) or 西红柿 (xīhóngshì). Some nights ago, for no particular reason (other than the fact that we’ve definitely been overdosing on this yummy fruitveggie), I asked my parents what those words actually mean.

So here we go:

CN | 番茄 | fānqié | foreign + Solanum

Solanum is a large and diverse genus of flowering plants, including two food crops of the highest economic importance, the potato and the tomato.” (via Wikipedia)

There’s actually a third major food crop under Solanum …can you guess it…eggplant! Which is just 茄子 (qiézi), with “zi” being sort of a noun suffix.

CN | 西红柿 | xīhóngshì | Western + red + persimmon

A Google search tells me there’s even another name for tomato 洋柿子(yáng shìzi). I’ve never heard tomatoes being called this, but basically 洋柿子 = yáng shìzi = foreign + persimmon + noun suffix.

See a trend? It appears China decided to brand the tomato by its defining characteristic of being a non-native species. And indeed, the broad consensus seems to be that tomatoes originated in Central/South America.

On the other hand, the most widely cultivated species of persimmon, is native to China.

After this revelation, I quickly thought of another example. 西瓜 (xīguā), which means watermelon, or more literally, “Western + melon”. Watermelons are thought to have come from Southern Africa, which is not exactly the Western world…but nonetheless foreign to China.

I always find myself thinking about how different countries introduce their people to things/ideas from foreign places, particularly through language. To me, the concept of identifying things based on their origin (and how they compare to something people are already familiar with) makes total sense–I just don’t know how pervasive this “system” is…I’ll keep my eyes peeled for more examples. It just seems like one of several rational ways of naming imported goods —  the others include more phonetic adaptations or just literal translations.

In terms of tomato and watermelon at least, Korea used the other two options.

KR |토마토 | to ma to

KR |수박 | su bak | water + melon


One thought on “Native Species

  1. Ah that’s so cool! I love when people decode common Chinese words. I kind of got the gist of xihongshi, but didn’t realize they compared it to a persimmon. Thanks for sharing!

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