Every once in a while, we all witness a dinner table argument over whether a tomato is a fruit or a vegetable, and you just have to roll your eyes. It’s true that an 1893 legal cases established that a tomato is a fruit, but that was a battle over tariffs. A wise person once said that “Education means knowing that a tomato is a fruit; wisdom is not putting one in a fruit salad.” The truth is that fruit and vegetable are not mutually exclusive categories, and that if you try to classify other vegetables botanically, you’ll find that there are no vegetables.
Botanically speaking, it’s still clear: eggplants, tomatoes, bell peppers, and squash are all fruits. It’s equally clear that mushrooms and truffles are fungi, more closely related to humans than they are to plants. But these are all, also, in common usage, “vegetables.” Yet when an authority like the Oxford English Dictionary should provide clarity on what a vegetable actually is, it instead defines vegetables as a specific set of certain cultivated plant parts, “such as a cabbage, potato, turnip, or bean.” And since carrots and turnips are roots, potatoes are tubers, broccoli is a flower, cabbage is a leaf, and celery is a stem, we find that “vegetable” rarely applies to the entire plant (or to the same parts of the plant), while it also has a way of applying to things that aren’t actually vegetables. It is a category both broader and more specific that the thing it’s supposed to describe.
So what is the meaning of the word “vegetable”? Lynne Peskoe-Yang looks through the history of the word to find out, and finds answers ranging from “plant that you eat” to “things the French put in a salad.” Read about the evolution of language as it pertains to that one word at Popula. -via Kottke
(Image credit: U.S. Department of Agriculture)