You Say Tomato... : The US Supreme Court Rules Against Smarty-Pants

We all have a smarty-pants friend—the one who corrects our grammar and points out the many tiny errors we make in everyday conversation. In my case, his name is Lyle.

Lyle is a Stanford-trained scientist, who, my daughter insists, actually knows everything. (He’s the kind of guy who knows whether I should have used whom, instead of who, in the sentence that precedes this one—and he will be quick to correct me, if he reads this, and I am mistaken.) Lyle, in other words, makes me feel like an idiot.

For years, Lyle and I have been hanging out at a local bar. Here are a few examples of our typical Thursday-night interactions at Antonucci's Lounge:

Me: Have you seen that Arby’s commercial with all the dancing monkeys?

Lyle: Chimpanzees aren’t really monkeys; they’re classified as apes.

Me: (Sotto voce) Your mom’s an ape.

Me: Sure, Kobe’s injured, but the Lakers will take the series irregardless.

Lyle: “Irregardless” isn’t a word.

Me:(Sotto voce) Your mom’s not a word.

Me: So, Jocasta was Oedipus’s wife...

Lyle: Jocsata was his mom.

Me: 

Okay, we may never have discussed Greek mythology at the bar, but you get the idea: Lyle points out my every grammatical and factual error, and I can only respond with middle-school rejoinders.

This is why I was thrilled to run across Nix v. Hedden, an 1893 case that called upon no lesser authority than the US Supreme Court to determine whether the tomato is, in fact, a fruit or a vegetable. 

Here’s how it happened: The Tariff Act of March 3, 1893, was designed to sharply reduce the costs of various imports to the US, but the law—as it was finally enacted—only reduced tariffs on certain goods and, even then, not by much. One of the Act’s odder repercussions was that imported vegetables continued to be taxed, whereas fruit could be brought into the county free.

Enter John Nix, an importer of, among other things, tomatoes. Nix was being hit with some fairly high taxes on the tomatoes he imported from the West Indies, and he sued Edward L. Hedden, collector of the Port of New York, to recover back duties he had paid under protest. Smarty-pants that he was, Nix insisted that the tomato was a fruit and therefore should enter the US tariff-free.

In the unanimous opinion of the Court, Justice Horace Gray wrote:

Botanically speaking, tomatoes are the fruit of a vine, just as are cucumbers, squashes, beans, and peas. But in the common language of the people, whether sellers or consumers of provisions, all these are vegetables which are grown in kitchen gardens, and which, whether eaten cooked or raw, are, like potatoes, carrots, parsnips, turnips, beets, cauliflower, cabbage, celery, and lettuce, usually served at dinner in, with, or after the soup, fish, or meats which constitute the principal part of the repast, and not, like fruits generally, as dessert.

In other words, botanists be damned. In the common language of the people the tomato is a vegetable. The rest of you (he means you, Lyle) need to put away your horticultural textbooks and lighten the hell up.

But this is not, I think, just some restricted and esoteric ruling; this is case precedent. Let it be know that the US Supreme Court is on the side of the average man, of conventional wisdom, of common parlance, and of the grammar of the people. The Court will not tolerate smarty-pants who come to us thumping the OED or shaking the Periodic Table.

Let’s raise our glasses to our highest court’s affirmation of the common sense of the common man. Let tomatoes everywhere be vegetables. Let the Lower Hudson be a river; let spiders be insects; and let poor Pluto, once again, be a planet. 


P J MORKAN is a writer whom lives in Southern California. He enjoys tomatoes, irregardless of what they are.