Ask Mint | Dictionary can’t be final word on meaning

Ask Mint | Dictionary can’t be final word on meaning
Comment E-mail Print Share
First Published: Sun, Jan 13 2008. 11 03 PM IST

Updated: Sun, Jan 13 2008. 11 03 PM IST
In 1893, the Supreme Court of the US was called upon to give its ruling on what many of you would consider a trivial issue: “Is the tomato a fruit or a vegetable?”
In many European languages, tomato has a name that links it to apple. German has Liebesapfel, love apple, with its equivalent pomme d’amore in French. The latter is considered a false derivation made by people who misheard a chef who said it is pomme de Moors, apple of the Moors. The Italian name, pomme d’oro, means golden apple. In the US and the UK, the tomato did not find easy acceptance as it belonged to the “deadly nightshade” family, which was considered poisonous.
But names can be misleading. For example, a guinea pig is not a pig and is not from Guinea. So let us see what the dictionary says about tomato. Almost every dictionary defines the tomato as a fruit. A typical definition would be, as in the Encarta dictionary, “red fruit: a round fruit with bright-red skin and pulpy seedy flesh, eaten cooked or raw as a vegetable.”
In botanical terms, a fruit is the part of a plant which carries the seeds and generally develops from the base of the flower. The tomato develops from a flower, and carries seeds. That makes it a fruit.
The Supreme Court, however, ruled that tomato is a vegetable and should be understood so in the Tariff Act. This case, known as Nix v. Hedden, has been cited to support the view that the meaning of a word is not just what you find in the dictionary. Three dictionaries were consulted, but the court went by the common meaning of the word.
The judge admitted that botanically speaking, tomatoes are classified as “fruit of the vine”, but in the common language of the people, they are vegetables usually served with the principal part of the repast and not, like fruits, generally as dessert. Fruit is a botanical term, and vegetable is a culinary term.
Another case centred on the question, “What is a sandwich?” Sandwich is a busy person’s meal, and was the favourite of John Montagu, Fourth Earl of Sandwich, an inveterate gambler who had no time to eat regular meals.
A mall in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts, had rented space to a sandwich shop and the agreement included an exclusivity clause, which said that the mall should not rent space to another sandwich shop.
Then came a competitor, a Mexican chain that was known for its burritos. The former protested that their exclusivity clause had been violated. They sought judicial remedy. Naturally, the dictionary was a starting point. The definition in the dictionary showed that if there are “two thin pieces of bread, usually buttered, with a thin layer...spread between them,” it is a sandwich; if there is only one tortilla encasing a hot filling, it is a burrito. Sandwich is a European comestible, and burrito is linked to Mexico. The court permitted the Mexican chain to open shop.
In July 2001, a Manhattan judge pronounced his ruling on the meaning of “book” that could influence the fortunes of publishing houses. He ruled that contracts between authors and publishers do not cover e-books, or digital editions of books. This decision enables authors to re-sell books already sold by them and receive royalty from digital publishers.
Lawyers on one side said reading an e-book is no different from reading a printed book; the other side argued that a digital book is paperless, downloadable, and searchable. Random House sought the intervention of the court, and the judge quoted from Random House Webster’s the entry for a book, “a written or printed work of fiction or nonfiction, usually on sheets of paper fastened or bound together within covers.” He ruled that a digital book is something totally different and new: It is a separate medium. Authors can separately contract for sale of digital rights.
With the sophistication and technology that have gone into toymaking, the business of toys is now no child’s play. The question of definition comes up here too. Action figures manufactured by toymakers belong to one of two categories: dolls and toys. Toys are subject to lower tariff rates. A toymaker, who was paying duties at the higher rate for his toys, appealed for a revision of the rates. The court defined dolls as figures with human forms, and toys as figures with non-human forms. The court ordered reimbursement of the duty already paid under protest by the toymaker.
From time to time, we are required to find the precise meaning of words. The dictionary can give us general clues, but cannot be the final arbiter. Meaning is a complex of many factors, and cannot be frozen into a dictionary entry.
V.R. Narayanaswami, a former professor of English, has written several books and articles on the usage of the language. He will look at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column. Comments can be sent to
Comment E-mail Print Share
First Published: Sun, Jan 13 2008. 11 03 PM IST