Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Tizzy Tuesday: A Vegetable By Any Other Name...

Those close to me know that if they want to send me into a logico-linguistic tizzy, they can just say:
"Did you know a tomato is really a fruit, not a vegetable?"
Let's proclaim this Tizzy Tuesday, get all righteous and indignant, and lay this half-truth (/half-falsehood) to rest once and for all.

This Messy Mush of Muddled Meanings is, I assert, based on an erroneous conflation of two distinct uses of the word "fruit":
  1. Culinary: An edible plant product, usually sweet (though perhaps not necessarily so), that by convention, for cooking and eating purposes, is called a fruit.*
  2. Biological: "The ripened ovary or ovaries of a seed-bearing plant, together with accessory parts, containing the seeds and occurring in a wide variety of forms."
Culinary fruits and culinary vegetables** are disjoint sets: there are no items that belong to both; so it's fair to say that "An apple is a culinary fruit, not a culinary vegetable," or "A tomato is a culinary vegetable, not a culinary fruit." But culinary vegetables and biological fruits are overlapping sets: an item can belong to one, the other, or both; so it's fair to say that "A tomato is a biological fruit and a culinary vegetable." Let's get Venny with it:

Note: This diagram indicates that culinary fruits are a subset of biological fruits—that if an item is a culinary fruit it is also necessarily a biological fruit—which I believe is the case. Can anyone think of a counterexample, a culinary fruit that is not a biological fruit? (No, not bananas. Bananas have itty-bitty little seeds.)

With our newly enlightened perspective, let's nitpick the initial tizzy-inducing statement to pieces:
First assertion: "a tomato is actually a fruit". Ambiguous—true in the biological sense; false in the culinary sense.

Second assertion: "a tomato is not a vegetable". False—vegetable soup with tomatoes? yum! fruit cake with tomatoes? blech!
Messy Muddled Mush of Meanings resolved. Statement debunked. Righteous indignation vented. (Whew! Thanks, I'm all better now.)

Feel free to trot out this little gem during smalltalk at your next cocktail party. And don't forget the Venn diagrams. (And don't worry about the eye rolls, yawns, and derisive snorts. They're just jealous of your logico-linguistic savvy.)

* Yeah, this definition sounds a bit tautological: "It's a fruit if it's called a fruit," but isn't that really how it works? It's a (culinary) fruit if, by historical linguistic and culinary convention, we say it is. I can think of loose amalgamations of traits that tend to distinguish (culinary) fruits and vegetables (sweet vs. savory, etc.), but I can't think of any bright line distinction based on inherent qualities that unambiguously distinguishes the two. (As opposed to the biological definition of a fruit which is much more explicit: it's either a ripened ovary of a seed bearing plant, together with accessory parts, containing the seeds and occurring in a wide variety of forms; or it ain't.)

** Really, "culinary vegetable" is probably redundant since "vegetable", as best as I can figure, is a strictly culinary term and has no biological or other non-culinary usage; but I'll keep the qualifier in the interest of
clarity and symmetry.


  1. "vegetable", as best as I can figure, is a strictly culinary term and has no biological or other non-culinary usage

    Hardly! If you've played twenty-questions, you know this isn't right. "Biological vegetables" are simply all plants. The Venn circle would contain all of the others in your diagram.

    Fruits de Mer as culinary, but not biological fruit?

  2. Could your new glasses have affected today's post? They make you look very scholarly. Just a thought.

  3. Hmm, somehow I always thought of "vegetable" in the context of Twenty Questions as an adjective—like "vegetable matter". And I would feel kind of weird calling a redwood tree a vegetable, but I see that the dictionary backs you up.

    And I think that the glasses just heighten my pre-existing essential dorkiness.

  4. Many people think of rhubarb as a fruit (for example, they would call rhubarb pie a fruit pie), but it's not a biological fruit.

  5. Will it help, or be more tizzifying, to point out that, while botany would suggest otherwise, the legal classification of a tomato is as a vegetable?
    Nix v. Hedden

  6. pookie11:08 AM

    This is all too much for my limited intellectual abilities. Therefore, I will continue to call a tomato a vegetable and rhubarb is a fruit!!

  7. craic-head11:44 AM

    A "Messy Mush of Muddled Meanings" indeed. (My corpus callosum hurts after reading this entry.)

    I actually thought that anything that grows on a vine (or a viney) plant or tree is a fruit, and all other grown edibles are solely veggies - but it ain't that simple, huh?

    (Consider submitting some of this info to a website that's called diffen. The entry for this very comparison is in great need of an argument expansion to include the culinary distinction, with accompanying Venn diagrams - of course. (I mean, if you're going to go all-out on the four-eyes nerd thing, you might as well go all the way with it. That way, you'll get to go to Nerd Heaven.))

  8. I believe that all plant matter is vegetation, not vegetable, exactly. But this does raise a lot of questions that I really should not ponder before bed time. I blame you for my insomnia :)

  9. The little red and green things you find in fruitcake. I don't know what they are, but I'm pretty sure they're not biological fruit. Or biological anything!

    What about gummy fruit? Or fruit made out of frosting?