Word Nerd: What’s in a definition? Maybe a tax on your freedom

Whereas all agree that a rose is a flower, it is not as clear what to call a tomato.


Tomato: A round vegetable with bright-red, occasionally yellow, skin and pulpy seedy flesh. It grows like fruit on climbing plants and is widely eaten cooked or raw. (Encarta World English Dictionary)

Tomato: The glossy fleshy fruit of a solanaceous plant, a native of tropical America, now cultivated as a garden vegetable in temperate as well as tropical lands. (OED)

Lest you think that deciding whether a tomato is a fruit or a vegetable is a matter that would only trouble a word nerd like me, I can assure you that it has been an issue that has troubled some of the greatest legal minds.

Take this 1883 situation: the US Congress passed a tariff act that placed a 10% import duty on vegetables but no tariff on fruits. So when the produce-importing Nix family brought in tomatoes from the West Indies, Edward Heddon, the tax collector at the Port of New York assessed the family with a 10% duty on the basis of the import being one of vegetables.

Needless to say the Nixes were not amused, and botanically they had a solid basis for being disgruntled as tomatoes are the freshly ripened ovaries of a plant, i.e., the fruit thereof. However, legally speaking, matters weren’t as cut and dried, and a six-year legal battle ensued with arguments being presented before the Supreme Court in 1893. As a result, both defense and prosecution cited myriad dictionary definitions that supported their position. The defense even cited definitions for cucumbers, eggplant, pepper, and squash to bolster their argument.

The Supreme Court ruled unanimously that tomatoes were vegetables. While admitting that a tomato was biologically a fruit, Justice Horace Gray stated that tomatoes were served “at dinner in, with, or after the soup, fish or meats which constitute the principal part of the repast, and not, like fruits, generically, as dessert.”

In the former case, the definitions of words such as “fruit” and “vegetable” only impinged on tariff rates, but the meaning ascribed to words also looms large when criminal offenses are involved. I take you back to 1926 when William McBoyle was convicted and sentenced for an alleged violation of the National Motor Vehicle Theft Act. The vehicle in question was a stolen airplane that McBoyle had an aviator named A.J. Lacey transport from Illinois to Oklahoma. McBoyle’s counsel contended that the word “vehicle” included only conveyances that travel on the ground, such as trucks and motorcycles, and hence the stolen airplane was not a vehicle but really a ship and under the doctrine of ejusdem generis, “any other self-propelled vehicle” could not be construed as a ground-based vehicle. Webster’s definition of vehicle was cited: “That in or on which any person or thing is or may be carried. Esp. on land, as a coach, wagon, car, bicycle, etc.” Germane to this case was the fact that when the statute was passed in 1919, airplanes were not specified therein.

Here is part of the ruling rendered by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, in 1931:

“No doubt etymologically it is possible to use the word {vehicle} to signify a conveyance working on land, water or air… in everyday speech ‘vehicle’ calls up a picture of a thing moving on land… Although it is not likely that a criminal will.. consider the text of the law before he murders or steals, it is reasonable that a fair warning should be given to the world in a language that the common world will understand. When a rule… is laid down in words that evoke in the common mind only the picture of vehicles moving on land, the statute should not be extended to aircraft simply because it may seem to us that a similar policy applies, or the speculation that if the legislature had thought of it, very likely broader words would have been used.

“Judgment reversed.”

Richler’s latest book, Arranged & Deranged Wit, will be published in 2015.

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