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The Meaning of Words: Why is a tomato a fruit?

A red tomato

Here Joanna Infeld explores the meaning and the power of words—and how we use them to understand, classify and define the world around us.


Why is a tomato a fruit? I have asked many people this question but as yet I have not received a satisfactory answer.


Because it contains seeds, someone might say, but so do cucumbers, eggplants and many other plants that are classified as vegetables. So I looked up the definition of "fruit" in the dictionary and this is what I found: “The sweet and fleshy product of a tree or other plant that contains seed and can be eaten as food.” So what is a vegetable? Again, I consulted the dictionary and it said, “A plant or part of a plant used as food.” Aha—so every fruit is also a vegetable! This was a revelation to me—a tomato is considered a fruit because of its sweetness. I guess a cucumber or an eggplant is not fleshy enough or sweet enough to be considered a fruit. So I then looked up "tomato" and found out that it is, “A glossy red or yellow edible fruit eaten as a vegetable or in salads.” This was even more confusing—a fruit eaten as a vegetable? How do you eat a fruit as a vegetable? And can you eat a vegetable as a fruit? I make a key lime pie using avocados—is that using and eating a vegetable as a fruit?

The way we name things and classify them can be very confusing. Most people will tell you a tomato is definitely a fruit but will not be able to explain why. Sometimes when we learn a word for something, we assume we therefore know what it is, but that is not necessarily so. I might know the word “spirit,” for example, but do I really know what it is and where it can be found? What about "electricity"? There is an anecdote about Einstein asking a student this very question, “What is electricity?” — and the student replying that yesterday he knew what it was, but today he forgot. Einstein sighed, “Yesterday there was one human on Earth who knew what electricity was, but today there is none.”


I believe it is important to define words and not to assume that the person we are talking to understands the words we are using in the same way we do. I have never thought of tomatoes as glossy, but whoever wrote the dictionary (which I understand was a group of Oxford professors and researchers) thought that glossy was a good description of a tomato.


And what about the green tomatoes that are a favorite food in the south of the United States?


Language is alive, and a dictionary is in a way a burial service, pinning words’ definitions to a time and place when and where they are written. I now understand that a vegetable is anything we eat that comes from a plant or tree, so this must include grains, legumes and nuts. But I’m not sure many people would think of a peanut, for example, as a vegetable.


Defining words becomes even more complicated when we start to talk about more abstract words like feelings and qualities. What is "hope", for example, or "courage", or "determination"? Trying to define these qualities, with or without the help of the dictionary, can help a person connect to the essences that these qualities contain. So thinking about courage, for example, and finding incidents of and stories about courage can help a person become more courageous. If we want more love to exist in the world, perhaps we should contemplate what love is and where it can be found. “I love ice cream” is clearly not the same emotion as in “I love my husband,” or “I love God.” So perhaps there are several levels to our feelings and qualities, and contemplating their meaning can bring us to a greater understanding and appreciation of their power.


What qualities define you?


Perhaps by recognizing our traits and qualities we can connect to their power and know for certain that we will be able to be patient, courageous, or considerate, or exhibit any other quality we possess, in any situation we find ourselves in.

So pay attention to what people say about you and how they describe you, so you can add the qualities they see in you to your growing arsenal of unseen friends.


Intelligence is knowing a tomato is a fruit.


Wisdom is knowing not to put it in the fruit salad.


What did you think?

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If you enjoyed this article, you may also enjoy Joanna's article Beyond Wishful Thinking: The Power of Hope.

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