Sciency Words: Fruit

Hello, friends, and welcome to Sciency Words, a special series here on Planet Pailly where we take a closer look at those weird and confusing words scientists use.  You know, words like:


In 1893, the Supreme Court of the United States was asked to decide whether a tomato is a fruit or a vegetable.  Under tariff laws that existed at the time, imported fruits and vegetables were taxed at different rates; therefore, the Court’s decision would have a major impact on tomato prices in the U.S.

The scientific definition of fruit is pretty clear.  Fruits are the ripened seed-bearing ovaries of plants.  Tomatoes are, in fact, the ripened seed-bearing ovaries of tomato plants; ergo, tomatoes are fruits.  Case closed, right?

Pictured above: a tomato, a cucumber, a bell pepper, and an egg plant—four different kinds of fruit, according to science.

Except, of course, lots of words in the English language have multiple definitions.  We’ve seen this before here on Sciency Words with words like volatile, metal, and planet.  As part of that 1893 tomato lawsuit, the Supreme Court also heard testimony about egg plants, cucumbers, squash, and peppers—all fruits, according to the scientific definition of fruit, but not according to the culinary definition.

For culinary purposes, a fruit must have either a sweet or tart flavor (in addition to that whole seed-bearing ovary thing).  This issue of flavor is really important to grocers and chefs, even if it’s not important to botanical scientists.  Thus, the word fruit has multiple definitions.  So is a tomato a fruit or a vegetable?  Depends on who you ask.

And if you were to ask the 1893 United States Supreme Court, they’d tell you tomatoes are vegetables, at least for the purposes of U.S. tariff law.

P.S.: And apparently carrots, sweet potatoes, and rhubarb stalks can be classified as fruits according to a 2001 European Union law regarding jellies, jams, and marmalades.

4 thoughts on “Sciency Words: Fruit

    1. I’m sure there’s some truth to that. If money weren’t involved (with fruits and veggies being tariffed differently), I’m sure this issue never would have made it to the Supreme Court in the first place.


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