The tomato wasn’t known to the ancient Hebrews. Before 1492, when Columbus sailed the ocean blue, they only grew in the New World across the Atlantic. So it’s no surprise that Hebrew had no word for the plump red fruit, until Yechiel Michel Pines rectified this deficiency and filled this lexical gap with the word ag-va-ni-YA.
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The year was 1886; Pines had been living in Ottoman-ruled Jerusalem for the previous eight years as Sir Moses Montefiore’s representative in the Holy Land. Since his arrival, he had spent his time and effort helping the few Jewish agricultural settlements that began popping up here in there.
In order to assist these settlers in their attempts to make a living off the land, Pines set out to translate a German guide to agriculture in Palestine and Syria - Dr. Leo Anderlind’s “Ackerbau und Tierzucht in Syrien, insbesondere in Palastina.” Among the useful information this small booklet contained was a short description of the crops grown in the region. Among these was the tomato, for which Pines was to come up with a Hebrew name.
In various European languages the tomato (a name the Spanish imported from the Americas) was also known as the “love apple” because some errantly believed it to be an aphrodisiac. Still, Pines looked for a Hebrew word for the tomato that would convey this sexual meaning. He found what he was looking for in a rare Hebrew root that appeared only once in the Bible in the Book of Yezikiel - ag-VA - “to lust for.” Adding the suffix YA to the root - he created the word we use today: ag-va-ni-YA.
Though this story seems straightforward, the word wasn’t immediately adopted by everyone. Eliezer Ben Yehuda thought the word was too dirty and refused to use it. Instead he proposed ba-DO-ra, which he derived from the Arabic word ban-DO-ra.
The Arabic word itself was a corruption of the Italian word pomodoro, which means “golden apple.”
For several decades both badora and agvaniya existed side-by-side, but during the 1920s the hit song “Agvaniya Agvaniya” - written and composed by two Haaretz writers - popularized Pines’s work, and by the 1930s the word badora was all but eradicated.
Shoshana Kordova is on leave. For previous Word of the Day columns, go to: www.haaretz.com/news/features/word-of-the-day.