One of the mysteries of the English language finally explained.
Is an olive a fruit?
Ask a botanist, and the reply would be yes: an olive, just like a plum or a cherry, is a fruit. The olive is the small, bitter-tasting fruit of the olive tree, Olea europea. Olives are classified as fruit because they’re formed from the ovary of the olive flower, and they’re seed-bearing structures - those small stones (or pits) that you leave on the side of your plate could grow into trees if you planted them. In culinary terms, however, olives are like those other fruit, tomatoes, and are treated as a vegetable: we eat them in savoury dishes or on their own as a snack or hors d’oeuvre.
Olives can be picked when they’re unripe and green, or left to ripen on the tree, their colour changing to purplish-black. Either way, they are too bitter to eat straight from the tree: they need to be treated first (usually by being soaked in brine). Of course, olives are often pressed to produce a versatile oil that’s used in salad dressings or for cooking; olive oil was also formerly burnt in lamps to provide lighting.
When we refer to offering an olive branch to someone, it means that we’re making them an offer as a sign of reconciliation. This metaphorical phrase derives from the biblical story of Noah and the Flood in the book of Genesis. After God had completely flooded the Earth, Noah sent a dove from the Ark to find dry land. When the bird returned with an olive leaf, it showed that the floodwaters were going down and that God had decided to give the human race another chance.
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