In everyday usage, a vegetable is any part of a plant that is consumed by humans as food as part of a savory meal. The term “vegetable” is somewhat arbitrary, and largely defined through culinary and cultural tradition. It normally excludes other food derived from plants such as fruits, nuts and cereal grains, but includes seeds such as pulses. The original meaning of the word vegetable, still used in biology, was to describe all types of plant, as in the terms “vegetable kingdom” and “vegetable matter”.
Originally, vegetables were collected from the wild by hunter-gatherers and entered cultivation in several parts of the world, probably during the period 10,000 BC to 7,000 BC, when a new agricultural way of life developed. At first, plants which grew locally would have been cultivated, but as time went on, trade brought exotic crops from elsewhere to add to domestic types. Nowadays, most vegetables are grown all over the world as climate permits, and crops may be cultivated in protected environments in less suitable locations. China is the largest producer of vegetables, and global trade in agricultural products allows consumers to purchase vegetables grown in faraway countries.
The scale of production varies from subsistence farmers supplying the needs of their family for food, to agribusinesses with vast acreages of single-product crops. Depending on the type of vegetable concerned, harvesting the crop is followed by grading, storing, processing and marketing.
Vegetables can be eaten either raw or cooked and play an important role in human nutrition, being mostly low in fat and carbohydrates, but high in vitamins, minerals and fiber. Many governments encourage their citizens to consume plenty of fruit and vegetables, five or more portions a day often being recommended.
The word vegetable was first recorded in English in the early 15th century. It comes from Old French, and was originally applied to all plants; the word is still used in this sense in biological contexts. It derives from Medieval Latin vegetabilis “growing, flourishing” (i.e. of a plant), a semantic change from a Late Latin meaning “to be enlivening, quickening”.
The meaning of “vegetable” as a “plant grown for food” was not established until the 18th century. In 1767, the word was specifically used to mean a “plant cultivated for food, an edible herb or root”. The year 1955 noted the first use of the shortened, slang term “veggie”.
As an adjective, the word vegetable is used in scientific and technical contexts with a different and much broader meaning, namely of “related to plants” in general, edible or not — as in vegetable matter, vegetable kingdom, vegetable origin, etc.