There is no fruit in a BLT

First, I want to say that tomatoes are a fruit. Here is a scientific definition of fruit:

Fruit noun, plural: fruits

(1) (botany) The seed-bearing structure in angiosperms formed from the ovary after flowering.


See? Tomato is a fruit.

Having said that, in common English parlance we do not call a tomato a fruit. We put the tomatoes in with the vegetables. Is this because we are unknowledgeable? No. It is because we are wise. Anyone who reads Fortune Cookies knows this:

Knowledge is knowing that a Tomato is a Fruit. Wisdom is not putting a Tomato in the Fruit Salad.

There are two things that bother me about this. First, we don’t do this with cucumbers. Cucumbers are also a fruit. Or butternut squash. That’s also a fruit. Or peppers. Fruit. We only do this “I’m a smart skeptic look how smart I am” thing with tomatoes. Why? Perhaps because of all the “vegetables” that are “fruit,” tomatoes are the most fruit-esque, more near the vegetable-fruit line, more positioned, as it were, to challenge the common knowledge. Or, maybe the “knowledgeable” who like to make fun of the villagers by pointing out that this vegetable is a fruit don’t know that a lufa sponge is also a fruit. Personally, I think it is because tomatoes are red, and so are a LOT of fruits. (Most of which are inedible, it seems, but that’s another story.)

So, the first thing that bothers me is that it isn’t taken far enough. The second thing that bothers me is that it is taken too far. Tomatoes are not fruit, they are vegetables, as are summer and winter squash, carrots, lettuce, and onions. Why? Because that is what we call them in English. Oh, the scientists? They have a different set of terms for these things. In fact, scientists have a huge big pile of terms related to plants…Achene, Laevigate, Inframedial, Staminode, and Spinescent to name a few…and among those terms there are two that look a lot like common English words and that have overlapping definitions: Fruit and flower. Just as the word “fruit” in English does not overlap with the scientific term “fruit,” the English word “flower” does not overlap with the scientific term. You do know, for instance, that those showy red flowery things on Poinsettias are not flowers. Those are just red leaves. Yet, they are flowers. When you visit Grandma at Christmas time and she’s got a big Poinsettia sitting there on the side table, you don’t say “Oh my, Grandmother, what large and pretty leaves you have there!”

So, the second thing that bothers me is this: The “fact” that tomatoes are “fruit” is not true. In English, they are vegetables. They are in the vegetable section, separate from the fruit, in the store. We treat them as vegetables. They taste like vegetables. There is no fruit in a BLT. Oh, sure, in Science Tomatoes are “fruit” … I know this because I wrote my PhD thesis in Science on Fruit so I’m a total expert on the subject. But I also wrote my PhD thesis in Anthropology of human-plant interactions. And I noticed that while the scientific lexicon and the natural language lexicon often overlap, they are not the same. I’m not big on “separate magisteria” because that’s a bunch of crap. But if we see the world as having One True Terminology, then we see the world without its culture. That would be wrong, boring, and close minded.

So, this is the thing: Science can’t communicate by standing on a box and shouting out its rules and insisting that variance between science and culture is indicative of culture being wrong. Tomatoes are not fruit, and the word “theory” means an idea that is weak. In English. Scientists and science boosters can insist as hard as they want that everyone who believes these things are wrong, and if they insist hard enough, in intro science classes an on the Intertubes, then everyone will eventually get it and use proper botanical terms and make correct reference to The Scientific Method when talking about their’ boyfriend’s chance of getting a job at the Target. Not.

Besides. Did you ever ponder the scientific meaning of the term “Vegetable? Turns out, Tomatoes are vegetables if we consider that “The noun vegetable means an edible plant or part of a plant.” Vegetarians eat vegetables, including strawberries.

Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit. Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a vegetable. Wisdom is understanding that a seeming contradiction is not a contradiction at all, but rather, a reflection of the cultural complexity of science and the scientific complexity of culture.

Image by Nina Matthews
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17 thoughts on “There is no fruit in a BLT

  1. Thank you so much. I’ve had this conversation (though not so eloquently) on more than one occasion, including the part about cucumbers and peppers, though I used eggplant instead of butternut squash.

  2. But they are closely related to the deadly nightshade, which is named after something that sounds to me like a window treatment.

  3. What happens if some one develops a really, really sweet tomato? Betcha we will find them on the fruit aisle.

  4. All tomatoes are pretty sweet, and other cultures do often use them as fruits. And heck, what is tomato salsa, but a sort of finely chopped fruit salad? 😉 (You can also make salsa out of other things, like pineapple or mango, and those are unambiguously fruit by all definitions.)

  5. Is a whale still fish then? I don’t think so either. The job of science is to improve common misunderstandings.

    “Tomatoes are not fruit, and the word “theory” means an idea that is weak. In English.”

    Not in the English I speak. A theory is the strongest idea we have, explaining many mere facts. But, you know that.

    A tomato is most definitely a fruit even if some want to call it a vegetable too. Botanically and developmentally it’s a fruit, even if some cooks think of it as a vegetable. But even most of them know it’s really a fruit. Gardening books, going back decades, speak of “fruit set” in tomatoes and of staking tomatoes to protect the fruit from rot. And, we all know the target of the tomato fruit worm. Everyone, at some level, knows that tomatoes are really fruits.

    Of course, I’m just an ape too, closely related to a chimpanzee, whatever the majority of my culture may think.

  6. This argument is kind of like the prescriptivist vs descriptivist linguistic argument. The scientific definition of fruit is every bit as arbitrary as the natural language definition. God didn’t make that rule, humans did.

  7. And strawberries are not berries, but aggregate fruit, while bananas are not fruits, but are actually berries. Does it really matter? Nope.

  8. Mark, May 30, 10:02 am

    While I’m quite the anti-prescriptivist on English Language grammar, I have to strongly disagree with your contention that the botanical “definition of fruit is every bit as arbitrary as the natural language definition.” The first sentence of the entry for fruit at Wiki says it well, “In botany, a fruit is a part of a flowering plant that derives from specific tissues of the flower, mainly one or more ovaries.” This is not to argue for the botanical definition to be use in place of the culinary (nice word for encapsulating the distinction) sense of the word in more general usage, only that the botanical one is not at all arbitrary. One flows from the structure of plants and the other is indeed a some what arbitrary construct, although its origins I’d place with humans bending plants to their will, rather than starting as headache of Zeus’.

    Further, I don’t see language as adhering to a set of rules, merely acceptance of a set of conventions. Attributing rule making to a deity, and more particularly to the deity, is interesting. Apparently god was nearly as fond of languages as of beetles.

  9. It’s not all that strange a situation. Botanically, a tomato is a fruit. For culinary purposes, it’s a vegetable. Maybe it’s a good metaphor for the completely different scientific and colloquial meanings of the word “theory.” Or why “opinion” means something different to the legal/judicial professions than it does to people exchanging sports or political chatter in a bar.

  10. Jim — I often wonder whether rhubarb stalks are legally defined as fruit or vegetable, given that they are nearly exclusive to dessert contexts in the US. I googled the question, and had the somewhat quixotic statement “Rhubarb is often commonly mistaken to be a fruit but rhubarb is actually a close relative of garden sorrel, and is therefore a member of the vegetable family.” I presume this author would come down on the “fruit” side with respect to tomato, then, though it’s the first time I’ve heard of a “vegetable family”. (Most other sources defined it as an herb that is used as a fruit, which seems a more sensible phrase.)

  11. The vegetable family … Very funny. Could be a sitcom.

    Rhubarbs persistent attempts to gain fruit cred by hanging around with strawberries have paid off!

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