In 1893, the case Nix v.s. Hedden found its way to the American Supreme Court. In this case, John Nix, John W. Nix, and Frank W. Nix filed a suit against Edward Hedden, a collector at the Port of New York, who had charged them a vegetable tax on their imported tomatoes.
The Nixes argued that, because a tomato is, botanically speaking, a fruit, the vegetable tax shouldn’t have applied.
At the trial, dictionary definitions were ignored, because, according to the Court, “dictionaries are admitted, not as evidence, but only as aids to the memory and understanding of the court.”
Instead, the Court looked at such things as the “ordinary meaning” of the words “fruit” and “vegetable” and precedent. In 1889, the case Robertson v. Salomon had established that, although technically white beans were seeds, they were eaten like vegetables instead of planted, so they should be taxed as a vegetable.
Ultimately, the court decided that a tomato should be taxed as a vegetable. The opinion of the court read: “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.”