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Produce, used as a noun, stands for fresh, unprocessed fruit and vegetables. In a produce aisle of a supermarket, we thus expect to find tomatoes, cucumbers, and apples, but not ketchup, tinned beans, or chocolate. Produce, used as a verb, however, stands for the process of transforming raw materials into something else; ketchup, tinned beans, and chocolate, are all things that have been produced by human beings. They are artificial things, unlike produce (noun), which is something natural.

How did the meaning of the noun produce end up being limited to the things that involve the least amount of producing, much less than goes into things that are not called produce?

(The puzzling nature of the connection between the verb and the noun is illustrated by this question which shows that a nonnative speaker who has fully mastered the use of produce as verb cannot be expected to derive from it the meaning that it has as a noun; one needs to learn the latter separately, as one would learn the meaning of an unrelated word.)

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  • I believe it is due to semantic extension first, from production of something to the amount of production, and to the result of production; and then, semantic narrowing took place to distinguish agricultural products (produce) and manufactured products/goods. I believe trading and industrial revolution in Britain (in the 18th century) might have influenced the language also. Good question.
    – ermanen
    Jul 5, 2022 at 10:25

2 Answers 2

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A related word is product. In mathematics this is the result of the multiplication of two numbers. However from the early 17th century it was used to descibe the result of any physical thing produced - such as manufactures.

Produce was also used, at that time for physical things, but it is only from the early 18th century we find evidence its use for agriculturally cultivated goods.

1725 is the earliset example of this sense in the OED:1725 D. Defoe Compl. Eng. Tradesman I. Introd. 6 The..British product..whether we mean its produce as the growth of the country, or its manufactures, as the labour of her people.

The agricultural sense is now the overwhelmingly dominant one in which the noun produce is used. However it has not disappeared altogether in other spheres. This example of the latter from as recently as 1991 is quoted:

1993 M. Marmé in L. C. Johnson Cities of Jiangnan in Late Imperial China i. 39 Insofar as Suzhou's rise from prominence to eminence was the work of the state, it was the produce of ad hoc decisions taken to exploit existing opportunities for imperial advantage.

And even this from 2003: A. Hunter Amer. Classic Pedigrees viii. 280 She was the produce of two inbred parents who, in a further oddity, were both inbred to mares rather than stallions.

Oxford English Dictionary.

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    Those are straight from the OED? I have to blink reading those because they both look like OCR errors for 'product'. A google search for both quotes picks up only google book entries.
    – Mitch
    Jul 4, 2022 at 21:15
  • Note that both nouns are stressed on the first syllable, but they have different vowels. Product is /'pradəkt/, but produce is /'produs/. Jul 4, 2022 at 22:14
  • @Mitch They are direct from the OED - indeed there are several more of them too.
    – WS2
    Jul 5, 2022 at 6:55
  • @WS2 Confirmed. But you should give more of the entry for those without access (and to make it easier to confirm).
    – Mitch
    Jul 5, 2022 at 14:15
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    The question was whether there is an explanation of the fact that 'the agricultural sense is now the overwhelmingly dominant one in which the noun produce is used'. With all due respect for the OED, it is unclear what one should make of the last two examples quoted in the answer: while they may prove that one can find such usage if one tries really hard, it is so unusual that it is difficult not to perceive it as some kind of an error.
    – jsw29
    Jul 5, 2022 at 15:48
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The definition you're using of "produce" as a verb is too narrow. According to https://www.thefreedictionary.com/produce, definition 1 is "to bring forth, yield", and the example they give is "a plant that produces pink flowers". Definition 2 is more like what you're thinking of, "to create by physical or mental effort; to manufacture".

That is, yes, we talk about a factory producing cars, but we also talk about a tree producing fruit.

One could say that it's curious that "produce" (noun) is only used to refer to things produced by nature, while for things produced by people we say "product".

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  • True, both tomatoes and ketchup are produced, the former by nature, the latter by machinery. It is not in itself puzzling that the noun is used for tomatoes (as you point out, they have been produced by nature), but that it is not used for ketchup, particularly in view of the fact that more producing is involved in the case of ketchup: the machinery's contribution to producing ketchup is added to the nature's having produced the tomatoes. In other words, my question was whether there is an explanation of the curiosity that you note in the last sentence of the answer.
    – jsw29
    Jul 5, 2022 at 15:31

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