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I found an interesting phrase, “You say Tomato, I say X” in the headline of the article of Time magazine (June 9). The headline and lead copy read:

“You say Tomato, I say Bailout: How Spain agreed to be rescued. Knowing how bailouts doomed the governments of other countries, Madrid insists it has accepted a massive "loan" to recapitalize its banks. Others, however, are calling it as they see it.”

I found out also that “You say Tomato, I say Bailout “ is a twist of the phrase, “You like tomato and I like tomahto;” in the verse of the song by George and Ira Gershwin, "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off." (1937) through Google.

It says the song was a pretty old, of 1937. Is this still popular phrase that I can use in day-to-day conversation, or even at a formal meeting to express “We are different in opinion”?

For instance, people’s opinions are sharply split in Japan today as to which should come first, government’s spending cut, or consumption tax increase. Can I say to our govenment “You say tomato, we say government’s spending cut”?

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up vote 15 down vote accepted

In the phrase you quoted, the implication is one of using two different words for the same exact concept, implying a difference where none exists. It is not simply about disagreement, and indeed implies the opposite: you are not in actual disagreement with each other, but both parties want it to appear that they are referring to different things anyway.

In the original song, the examples that were given are all of "upper class" pronunciations vs. "common man" pronunciations. For example, at the time, an upper-class American would be more likely to say "toh-MAH-toh", to distinguish themselves from the average person that would say "toh-MAY-toh". But both are words for the same thing -- a tomato.

In modern usage, the phrase has taken on a broader meaning of selectively using vocabulary to distinguish between otherwise identical concepts. In the Time example, depending on your particular political affiliation, you are more likely to call the government subsidizing of private companies a "bailout" (if you opposed it) or a "loan" (if you support it), but ultimately you are talking about the same exact action. The Time headline is meant to be understood as reading "Some say 'loan', others say 'bailout', but the result is the same"; they are using the reader's presumed familiarity with the more general phrase for effect.

In your example from Japanese politics, you are talking about a case where an actual distinction exists between the two options. There is a real choice between two possible actions, and the words you use to describe each of those options differ because they must. This is not a case where you would likely use the "You say tomato..." phrase.

If someone who opposed a tax increase began referring to it as a "penalizing the rich", for example, then it would be more appropriate to use that particular turn of phrase.

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+1. For the history. –  Noah Jun 11 '12 at 3:46
    
@Michael Edenfield.The primary reason I took this phrase as meaning “We agree to disagree” was based on the original title and lyrics of George and Ira Gershwin – “Potato, potahto, tomato, tomahto! Let's call the whole thing off! But oh! If we call the whole thing off, then we must part.” It sounds like the argument between two runs parallel to the end without any compromise. Given all your answers, the phrase seems to me now saying “We are saying the same thing only in different expression (words),” meaning we are on the same page. Am I right? –  Yoichi Oishi Jun 11 '12 at 19:53
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Yes, you are right. The phrase has evolved, depending on the context, to mean one of two things: "What we are saying is so close that the differences are not worth arguing over.", or "We are saying the same thing, even though you keep using a different word to make it sound different." –  Michael Edenfield Jun 11 '12 at 20:08
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Also: the idea behind the song is of the first sense, something like "if we keep arguing over this silly, insignificant distinction, that really means nothing, it will ruin our friendship, so lets just stop." –  Michael Edenfield Jun 11 '12 at 20:11
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It needs to be two names for the same thing. In the example you gave, some say it's a "loan" others call it a "bailout"

But when it's a choice between two different things, "tax increase" or "spending cut" it's not a case of the same thing by a different name so it is not appropriate to use the "You say 'tomato'... " turn of phrase.

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You say tomato , I say tomato (pronounced toMAYto/toMAHto) is a fairly common expression that basically means, "you and I both have our own opinions on this, and neither one is necessarily 'wrong' ". The Gershwin song may be rather old, but the expression is still in contemporary use.

As for using it in the context of Japan's current economic debate, the way you've worded it in your question reads a bit awkward. What works for a newspaper headline wouldn't necessarily work all that well in conversational English. However, if you were engaged in discussion with someone about which should come first – spending cuts, or the tax increase – and it looked like neither one of you was going to persuade the other to switch positions, a polite way to end the debate while the conversation was still on friendly terms might be:

You say tomāto, I say tomäto; I guess we'll just have to agree to disagree.

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I usually hear this shortened to just “tomāto, tomäto”. (Also, those accents work oddly well.) –  Jon Purdy Jun 11 '12 at 4:21
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This isn't quite right. It specifically means "it sounds like we're talking about different things, but we're actually saying the same thing". It's not just any old difference of opinion. –  user16269 Jun 11 '12 at 10:59
    
@DavidWallace: Your observation is both astute and correct, and I've upvoted Michael's answer, which does a good job explaining the point you made. After some deliberation, I've decided to leave my post as-is, because I still think that “tomāto, tomäto” could be used to politely diffuse a potentially contentious argument, and keep it as a friendly conversation, but – as you point out – I need to add the caveat that, technically speaking, it's not precisely how the expression is supposed to be applied. Now, I'm adding it here in this comment; thanks for the feedback! –  J.R. Jun 11 '12 at 15:08
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The phrase "You like tomato and I like tomahto" that you quoted from the Gershwin song refers mainly to differences in pronunciation, and is readily understood as such. Time may be trying to emphasize that the difference between loan and bailout is not just a pronunciation difference, but a difference in concept and meaning. The twisted phrase probably does emphasize that difference, but also calls more attention to itself than is desirable. I find their phrasing grotesque and clunky and recommend against following their example.

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I think Time is actually trying to make the exact opposite point: the difference between "bailout" and "loan" in this specific case is merely careful word selection (for political gain) and ultimately mean the same thing. –  Michael Edenfield Jun 11 '12 at 3:09
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No, I don't think that usage would work. The phrase can mean "we agree to disagree" but more often means "I don't think the distinction is very important" in a humorous way. Time's use here suggests that one of the subjects of its story is dissembling, or splitting hairs semantically.

The phrase is still common today, but only in very casual speech. It is most often said: "Tomato, tomahto…" while making a motion as though comparing two equal weights, one in each hand.

Here's a comic from Hil and Mallory which illustrates its use in conversation:

Webcomic illustrating "tomato tomahto"

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