the food groups, part i

What’s on your plate? At the Mashed Radish, I hope its lots of…root vegetables. Please throw a tomato at that one. This post–just because–let’s have a taste of the etymology of the major food groups, as defined by the United States Department of Agricultures’ “MyPlate”:

The new food pyramid, courtesy of I think they have something against knives and spoons.

What can I say? Some people can’t resist chocolate. I can’t resist a good info-graphic by an under-appreciated department of federal government.

Conventionally, we speak of five food groups: fruits, vegetables, grains, protein, and dairy. Fats, oils, and sweets–which I now often see treated together as “oils”–function as a sixth category. So, besides from the ground, where do “fruit,” “vegetable,” and “grains” come from?


Distinguishing between fruits and vegetables can be as spiky as a pineapple rind. Slate‘s Lexicon Valley episode “Legislating Language” will entertain and edify you with a story about a court case where this distinction truly mattered.

Etymologically, it’s a bit simpler, with fruit generally meaning “produce.” English plucked fruit directly from the Old French fruitin turn from the Latin fructuswhich indeed referred to this “produce” as well as “profit” and “satisfaction,” anticipating modern meanings lie the “fruits of one’s labors.”

In many ways, fruit is own metaphor: this fructus is from the verb frui“to enjoy.” A Proto-Indo-European root for “enjoy”–which some scholars reconstruct as *bhrug– and others as *brudh-may well have seeded the word. So, too, the Germanic-based verb brook. This evolved from an original meaning of “use” or “enjoy” to today’s sense of “put up with” and perhaps becoming fast fossilized in the construction brook no –, as in “I will brook no criticisms of our new Greek yogurt policy.”

We also have the Latinate frugal, from a notion of temperate use, and fruition, literally “enjoyment” but conflated with fruit and so thus a figure of “bearing fruit.”


If you don’t like to eat your vegetables, perhaps etymology will inspire your appetite. The Middle French vegetable dished English up its serving, from the post-classical Latin vegetabilis, an adjective that meant “animating” or “vivifying.” This life-giver is a very far cry from its pejorative use today to describe a person with brain damage.

If we dig deeper into the Latin soil, we will find vegetare, “to invigorate,” and vegetus, “lively, energetic.” Here, the Proto-Indo-European base is *weg-, “to be strong,” ultimately giving English wake, watch, and wax through Germanic seeds and vigilvigor, and velocity through Latin ones. Surveillance is a French take on Latin’s vigil.

Mothers wear many hats: they are caregivers, breadwinners, and…etymologists: Eat your vegetables indeed, they will literally make you strong.


The source of grain is the same as corn. American English restricts corn to “maize,” but it still can refer to cereal grains in British English. We can trace grain back through Old French to the Latin granum (think granuleand corn to Germanic root *kurnom or *kurnam. At some point, the Romanic and Germanic forms converge on the Proto-Indo-European *ger-. Jordan Shipley glosses this as “ripen” (from an earlier meaning of “grow old”) while the Oxford English Dictionary focuses on the Sanskrit cognate jr, “to wear down” or “waste away.” If the OED is correct, we may think of grains in reference to agriculture: a “worn down” particle, as the OED comments.

Next post, we will pick up on “protein,” “oils,” and the very interesting “dairy.”



One thought on “the food groups, part i

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s