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Big Apple

Q From Mary-Lou Kansakar: Please tell me why New York City is called the Big Apple.

A This nickname became widely known after 1971, when in a bit of spirited boosterism that became the envy of other cities, the New York Convention and Visitors Bureau began to encourage tourism by using it. The campaign succeeded beyond the promoters’ hopes and is now widely known, even beyond the shores of the US. As a result, a perennial question to word sleuths asks where the name comes from. Was it perhaps invented by the Bureau?

No, they didn’t invent it. But where it actually came from has been the subject of much argument and misinformation, leading at times to bad-tempered exchanges between individuals claiming to be experts. One hoaxer online has claimed the origin as far back as the early 1800s and a French lady known as Eve; she was said to have established a brothel in the city, whose clients became known as Eve’s Apples, leading to apple gaining an unsavoury sexual connotation. Some say instead that the nickname appeared during the years after the Wall Street Crash of 1929, when out-of-work financiers sold apples on the city’s streets. Others link it to a dance of the late 1930s with that name, popular in New York. However, none of these fit the known dates.

The real story of the connection of Big Apple with New York is now known, as the result of a decade-long detective hunt through newspapers by American researchers Barry Popik and Gerald Cohen. They found that the first printed evidence comes from a racing writer named John J Fitz Gerald, who wrote a regular column in the old New York Morning Telegraph that he later renamed Around the Big Apple. He first used it in 1921 to refer to the racetracks of New York: “The L T Bauer string is scheduled to start for ‘the big apple’ tomorrow”. He broadened the term to refer to all New York in February 1924: “The Big Apple, the dream of every lad that ever threw a leg over a thoroughbred and the goal of all horsemen. There’s only one Big Apple. That’s New York”.

After a lot of work, the researchers found that Fitz Gerald had written in 1924 that he had first heard the term from a couple of black stable hands in New Orleans in 1920, for whom the Big Apple was the New York racetracks that represented the big time, the goal of every aspiring jockey and trainer. It seems from an early example of the phrase that people were thinking of an apple as a treat, and that for those New Orleans stable hands the New York racing scene was a supreme opportunity, like an attractive big red apple.

Fitz Gerald popularised the name to the extent that it was picked up by others. Walter Winchell used it for the entertainment district of New York in 1927: “To the lonely and aspiring hoofer, the fannie-falling comedian, Broadway is the Big Apple, the Main Stem, the goal of all ambition.” Jazz musicians also used it the same way, which led to the late 1930s dance, possibly through a New York club also called the Big Apple. The expansion of the term to the whole of New York seems to have become common around the 1940s.

This solves the immediate problem, but — as so often in etymology — merely takes it back one step. Where did those New Orleans stable hands get the phrase from, since it seemed to be well-known? Some writers point to the Spanish phrase manzana principal, main apple, for a city centre or the main downtown area. That’s from an idiomatic usage of manzana for a city block, probably from manzanar, an apple orchard, hence a plot of land. It is said that it was being used by the New Orleans men Fitz Gerald talked to in the more general sense of the place to be, the place where the main action is.

The matter was thrown into some confusion in January 2008. Fred Shapiro and Ben Zimmer of the American Dialect Society reported an earlier citation, which appeared in the Chicago Defender on 15 May 1920. “No, Ragtime Billy Tucker hasn’t dropped completely out of existence, but is still in the ‘Big Apple’, Los Angeles.” So the Big Apple was Los Angeles before it became New York? What a turn-up for the books that would be. However, the etymologists are sceptical about this, not least because one citation doesn’t constitute proof. And in 1920, Los Angeles was a small city, nothing like the sprawling metropolis it has since become. But it does make one wonder anew where the term came from. Somehow, I feel we haven’t heard the last of this.

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Page created 25 Mar 2006; Last updated 02 Feb 2008