In 1893, one of the largest produce sellers in New York City pursued a tax loophole to the highest court in the land: since John Nix’s tomatoes had been imported from the West Indies as vegetables–and had thus been subjected to Chester A. Arthur’s wildly unpopular vegetable tariffs–he sued the city’s tax collector to declare that tomatoes were fruits.
All the evidence came from dictionary definitions. Nix’s lawyers submitted six entries, three of the word “fruit” and three of “vegetable,” to argue that (in botanical terms) tomatoes are clearly fruits. But the defense submitted the Webster’s dictionary definition of “pea,” “egg plant,” “cucumber,” “squash,” and “pepper,” demonstrating that while they were all technically “fruits” in botanical terms, like tomatoes, they were commonly understood to be vegetables. This argument won the day and the court unanimously sided with the New York City tax collector. Even though “dictionaries define the word ‘fruit’ as the seed of plaints, or that part of plaints which contains the seed,” and they are the fruit of a vine, “just as are cucumbers, squashes, beans, and peas,” Justice Horace Gray ruled that tomatoes are “like potatoes, carrots, parsnips, turnips, beets, cauliflower, cabbage, celery, and lettuce, usually served at dinner in, with, or after the soup, fish, or meats which constitute the principal part of the repast.” They are not, he pronounced, served “like fruits generally, as dessert.”
In this way, Gray and his fellow jurists sealed the tomato’s identity crisis into law. The legal definition would be what common speech suggested, even if biology indicated the opposite. Nix’s tomatoes would be called “vegetables” because that’s what everyone called them.
In a “descriptivist” approach to linguistics, words mean what we intend them to mean; whatever native and fluent English speakers usually say is what it is “correct” to say. If you call a thing a thing, that’s what it is: vegetables are the things we call “vegetables.” As long as it communicates systemically, language is fluid, self-regulating, and tautological, and there would be no sense in arguing that tomatoes are really fruits just because they are developed from the ovary of a flowering plant. That would be a prescriptivist approach, deriving a definition from some ostensibly correct, authorized form of the language. Dialects of a language only have to follow their own rules to be correct, as the descriptivist would retort; if everybody in a dialect breaks a rule, then the rule is bad and has to go.
In 1893, the “descriptivists” won out. But what of today?
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.
In a botanical sense, it’s easy: vegetables don’t exist as a discrete, coherent category. And the more you know about botany–the nuanced phylogeny that gardeners and farmers know and the centuries of research into plant evolution that botanists have learned–the more likely you’ll be a dissenter in the vegetable debate. “This is why people hate botanists,” as one disillusioned commenter wrote in a particularly heated r/Botany thread.
Only the existence of the definition is an argument for the existence of the vegetable. But while dictionaries are, in theory, descriptivist, they tend to betray the cause by appealing to the etymological past, breaking words down into their simplest and oldest-known usages. If dictionaries wield etymology to prove Standard-dialect supremacy–since only the Standard winds up in dictionaries–the stories of how that standard came to be, nevertheless, will only raise more questions.
For example: the Proto-Indo-European root *weg– (‘to be strong; to be lively’) begat the Medieval Latin verb vegare (‘to be alive, active; to quicken’), which gave rise to the Old French adjective vegetable (‘living, fit to live’). But once the word landed in English, that broad qualification of aliveness dwindled down over centuries to include only a few edible segments of certain plants and fungi that were deemed palatable by the Medieval English. How did that happen?
The first loss of meaning came with the Norman Conquest, which brought a new language to Britain and a new nobility to use it. That century and a half period of national bilingualism–in which the upper class spoke French while the peasants continued speaking Anglo-Saxon dialects–resulted in some of English’s most fascinating and aggravating features, and must have been a confusing time to be British. But the imprint survived into middle English and beyond, giving us French-derived words for the Norman gentry’s concerns (chivalry, courtesy, nobility, honor), pastimes (damsel, tournament, parlor, melody, poetry), and foods (vegetables).
These words didn’t always replace their Anglo-Saxon equivalents; equivalents were adopted and used alongside the Germanic versions with updated class connotations or slightly altered meanings, as what the historian Melvyn Bragg calls “almost synonyms.” The Germanic “understand,” for example, is almost synonymous with the French “comprehend,” but it’s the latter that sounds like a professor is speaking. It’s the same with words like “room” and “chamber,” “answer” and “respond,” “freedom” and “liberty,” or “friendship” and “amity”: Norman French has been absorbed into a unified English language (and speakers can be fluent without knowing which words came from where) but the French-origin words still somehow sound snobbish. That these distinctions survive half of a millennium after French vocabulary was assimilated into Modern English testifies to the grudge a language can hold.
“Vegetables” are a result of this grudge. During Norman and early Plantagenet rule, the farm-to-table divide was less of a foodie buzzword than a class distinction: the upper class were served in French while serfs and servants planted, harvested, raised, butchered, and cooked in Anglo-Saxon. The French word for the served food lived alongside the Germanic word for its source. When Anglo-Saxon chickens were slaughtered, they became poultry for the Normans to eat. Food and animal were class-divided döppelgangers: Anglo-Saxon sheep, cows, swine, and doves were transformed into French mouton (mutton), boeuf (beef), porc (pork), and pigeons (pigeons).
In the fifteenth century, vegetable entered the English language when it acquired a different meaning than its French predecessor: instead of merely living, it meant, specifically, “non-animal life.” But it wouldn’t be recorded as meaning “plant cultivated for food; edible herb or root” until 1767, because it would take some time to overtake its Anglo-Saxon synonym, wort (a word which clings to relevance today when it pops up in Harry Potter’s Potions class and other kinds of breweries).
Then again, “wort” was not vegetable. It referred both to modern vegetables like colewort (cabbage) and to things we’d now call spices, herbs, weeds, and flowers: brotherwort (wild thyme), catwort (catnip), and starwort (asters). Corn, potatoes, squash, peppers, and tomatoes, of course, would not have been called “wort” because these American vegetables hadn’t yet arrived on the continent. Leeks, lettuce, parsnip, and onions were native to Britain, but they were not central to the local cuisine; even after the French and their salads arrived on the Isle, raw plants were believed to be poisonous. The only “vegetables” we’d recognize that Anglo-Saxon peasants consumed were stewed peas, stewed radish, and cabbages (and those largely because it was believed that cabbage broth had laxative properties and radish was an antidote to poison).
In short, the set of plants, plant-parts, and fungi that we now use the word “vegetable” to describe would have been, before the Norman Conquest, a meaningless grouping. But while “wort” once served to name both whole plants and the foods they made, vegetable is strictly a table word for vegetarian cuisine. Something was lost: since vegetable only describes what appears on the table, it has little clarity when applied to the various sources, on the farm and in the forest. As vegetable took over, we gained a quick way to refer to the organisms that the French put in salads, but we lost the nuance of the expert herb-gatherer, fruit-picker, home gardener and farmhand; those who retain that knowledge are only those whose profession or hobby requires it. For everyone else, the consumer’s word has to suffice, and with it the broad ignorance of the means and flavor of the food’s production.
Historical events set off the wildest shifts in language. Revolutions, genocides, explusions, and religious upheavals can transform cultures beyond recognition, with a corresponding impact on language: emigration and colonialism create offshoots of mainstream dialects that evolve separately from their ancestors while intimate cultural contact over long periods of time spawns brand new languages that combine elements from multiple linguistic sources. Prolonged cultural isolation, as in the case of the Icelandic language, has been linked to a proliferation of complex internal rules in syntax and morphology.
In 1767, using vegetables to refer to a mixture of spinach, morels, rutabagas, and celery was specific enough for most speakers’ purposes, but that was before the average person was very likely to ever experience these organisms exclusively in their ready-to-eat forms. If everyone knows that a carrot is just the root of a whole plant, saying “carrot root” would be a waste of a syllable.
Today, the production side of the vegetable experience is the domain of hobbyists and career farmers. Everyone else has a case of what botanists call plant blindness: the inability to recognize plants native to the local biome or dinner plate by sight. And a national epidemic of botanical-visual impairment can inhibit informed opinions on vegetable matters like agricultural subsidies, genetically modified foods, and seed patents (let alone broader, more complex issues like climate change). On a personal level, it could can to a lifelong disconnect from a huge portion of the biosphere we rely on to live.
How many of us outside of industrial agriculture can picture what the whole plant looks like, unharvested? What about whole, ripe mushrooms that won’t kill you or get you high? What do young cucumber plants look like when they’re healthy? If you’ve never grown olives, maize, or pumpkins, how will you know not to bother with them during the apocalypse because they all use way too much water to grow? And if the whole category of vegetables is something that you encounter primarily on a salad menu or in Veggie Tales, what are the chances you’ll ever feel empowered to grow or gather them yourself?
This cultural removal from the other side of the kitchen has been going on since the dawn of industrialization, but nothing has brought it to public attention like the rise of the Internet. Without broad access to scientific information, the fact that a scientific definition doesn’t match an experiential one could never have been the subject of such impassioned discourse. Might the fact that it has portend a new turn? What if we took advantage of the opportunity to bring botany and agriculture into the kitchen? What could it do for our farms and our appetites?
Then again, there is a wealth of history embedded in words like vegetable. “The ambiguities of language,” writes sociolinguist Sali A. Tagliamonte, “are its stepping stones through time.” As long as we don’t forget what bulbs and tubers are, using words like vegetable can be part of a healthy relationship with both ambiguity and the vague, agglomerated past, like a t-shirt with an old-timey portrait of a guy with a handlebar mustache holding a cat. We can question old wisdom and still like the sound of it. We can be divorced from our plant-raising heritage by enslavement and urbanization and still defy all expectations to reclaim our roots. Maybe we are also capable of marveling at the astonishing complexity of the living world while simultaneously marveling at what vegetable represents about our long and troubled relationship with the plants on our plates.