One of the meanings of "vegetable" is:

  1. Offensive Slang One who is severely impaired mentally and physically, as by brain injury or disease.
    American Heritage Dictionary

But it's not just slang, in medicine the term "vegetative state" can be used to refer to patients:

with severe brain damage are in a state of partial arousal rather than true awareness.
Persistent Vegetative State

I'm wondering what have caused people to use words like "vegetable" or "vegetative" to refer to this medical condition. The words are obviously related to fresh vegetables and green vegetation.

  • "The words are obviously related to fresh vegetables and green vegetation." - Are they? I don't think that's obvious in this context, given that in casual, non-scientific language it is (or was) relatively common to classify all things as either animal, vegetable, or mineral. In which case describing a living but nonresponse human with permanent severe brain damage as a vegetable may not be respectful, but it isn't a particularly obscure metaphor. – nnnnnn Jul 8 at 6:07
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    Look, medicine may say neutrally that I'm in a certain state. But saying that I am a vegetable is an insult. – Yosef Baskin Jul 8 at 18:30

Here’s the 1972 origin of the term in the medical literature:

Jennett B, Plum F: Persistent vegetative state after brain damage. A syndrome in search of a name. Lancet. 1972, 1: 734-737. 10.1016/S0140-6736(72)90242-5.


Here’s a more recent article (2010) suggesting an alternative terminology and discussing the discomfort the medical profession feels using it, for both medical and human reasons.


The conception of a vegetative nervous system goes back to 1800 when Bichat divided the nervous system into animalic and vegetative [12]. The former linked the person to her or his environment and was expressed by the muscles of voluntary locomotion and the organs of external senses. The latter identified the nutritional functions of the body. According to the Oxford English dictionary, 'to vegetate' is to 'live a merely physical life devoid of intellectual activity or social intercourse' and 'vegetative' describes 'an organic body capable of growth and development but devoid of sensation and thought'. To part, if not most, of the lay public and media, however, it has a rather pejorative undertone and seems (incorrectly) to refer to patients as being vegetable-like

Google Ngram shows a considerable increase in the use of the term “vegetative state” in the years after the 1972 article. A check of earlier uses, admittedly incomplete, picked up only use relating to plants, not human beings.

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  • Does that original Lancet article explain why the term was chosen? I can only access the abstract, which uses the term without any explanation why it was chosen. – nnnnnn Jul 8 at 6:02
  • @nnnnnn I can’t get to anything but the abstract either, which does suggest a term that distinguishes this state from other unresponsive states without implying unknown matters. – Xanne Jul 8 at 6:15
  • I mean, it seems very obvious why "vegetable" might be used as a slang term, including by doctors when talking amongst themselves, but it would be nice to know how they decided to use the (slightly more polite) version in formal literature. Nice work finding the article. – nnnnnn Jul 8 at 6:19

Vegetative in the medical sense appears to have a quite old origin according to the following extract:

When did we start describing comatose patients as “vegetative”? In the mid-1800s, although the word itself has been around much, much longer. In De Anima,Aristotle used the word vegetative (or, rather, the ancient Greek equivalent) to denote lesser forms of life. Plants, he wrote, have a “vegetative” soul, capable only of growth and reproduction, whereas humans have a “rational” soul that allows for thought.

The earliest example of this medical usage in the Oxford English Dictionary dates from 1893—when the Daily News, a now-defunct British paper, referred to a man in a “vegetative state” who was “incapable of connecting two ideas together”.


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