The Grammarphobia Blog

Can a fruit be a vegetable?

Q: You pushed one of my buttons when you made the claim that squash is a fruit, not a vegetable. I hear the same thing about tomatoes, usually accompanied by some level of know-it-all smugness. Simply put, the words “fruit” and “vegetable” are not mutually exclusive.

A: You’re right, and we’ve fixed our posting, which discusses whether the “squash” that means to crush is related to the “squash” that one eats.

As you say, something can be a fruit in the botanical sense as well as a vegetable in the culinary sense. It all depends on whether one is using the vocabulary of the kitchen or of the garden.

In the garden, a fruit is the edible reproductive part of a seed plant, while a vegetable is any edible part of a plant.

In the kitchen, a fruit is any edible part of a plant with a sweet flavor, while a vegetable is any edible part of a plant that’s spicy, salty, or otherwise pungent.

Interestingly, the word “fruit” referred to edible “vegetable products in general” when it entered English in the 12th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest OED citation is from the Lambeth Homilies, a collection of sermons dating from around 1175: Me saweth sed on ane time and gedereth thet frut on other time.” (In this and subsequent quotations, we’ve changed the letters eth and thorn to “th.”)

It wasn’t until the 13th century that the word “fruit” took on its reproductive sense, which the OED defines as the “edible product of a plant or tree, consisting of the seed and its envelope.”

The earliest Oxford citation for this new meaning is from the Ancrene Riwle (circa 1225), which refers to a tree that “bereth swete frut.”

Although the Old French noun fruit is the immediate source of our English word, the term is ultimately derived from the Latin verb frui (to enjoy).

The noun “vegetable” (from the post-classical Latin vegetabilia) first showed up in English in the late 15th century, according to OED citations.

The word initially referred to “any living organism that is not an animal,” Oxford says, but it has come to mean “one belonging to the plant kingdom.”

The first OED citation is in a translation from around 1484 of Secretum Secretorium, a medieval treatise on, among other things, astrology, alchemy, and magic:

“Euiry thyng wantyng lyght of the nombyr of vegetabyllis is attribute to Saturne.”

Thanks for catching our mistake and keeping us on our toes. And thanks for giving us a chance to write about these sweet and savory edibles.

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