This name for New York City was originally horse-racing slang that made its way into the vernacular. The metaphor is that New York City is a succulent and sweet prize to be had for those who are successful in racing or any field of endeavor.
Big apple was commonly used in the late-19th century to refer to the winnings of a wager. This use appears as early as the August 1847 issue of The American Farmer:
Try it once and we’ll bet you a big apple that you do it every year thereafter for the balance of your life.
The term used in reference to New York City first appears in the writings of sportswriter John J. Fitz Gerald, who wrote for the New York Morning Telegraph. Fitz Gerald first used the term in a column on 3 May 1921:
J. P. Smith, with Tippity Witchet and others of the L. T. Bauer string, is scheduled to start for “the big apple” to-morrow after a most prosperous Spring campaign at Bowie and Havre de Grace.
The jump from wagering in general to horse racing in particular is unsurprising.
Fitz Gerald never claimed to have coined the Big Apple. Instead, he consistently gave the credit to an African-American stable hand he overheard in New Orleans in January 1920. Fitz Gerald first told the tale in an 18 February 1924 column:
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.
Two dusky stable hands were leading a pair of thoroughbred around the “cooling rings” of adjoining stables at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans and engaging in desultory conversation.
“Where y’all goin’ from here?” queried one.
“From here we’re headin’ for The Big Apple,” proudly replied the other.
“Well, you’d better fatten up them skinners or all you’ll get from the apple will be the core,” was the quick rejoinder.
By the late 1920s, the term had been adopted by New Yorkers in general and used to refer to the city as a whole, not just the New York racing circuit. A tourism advertising campaign in the 1970s that used the term as a theme reinvigorated usage and brought the name to the attention of millions who had not otherwise heard it.
There is a single 1909 use of big apple in reference to New York City, but this is apparently a unique use of a fruit metaphor and is unrelated to the later uses. It appears in Edward Martin’s Wayfarer in New York and in context is a reference to New York City:
New York is merely one of the fruits of that great tree whose roots go down in the Mississippi Valley, and whose branches spread from one ocean to the other, but the tree has no great degree of affection for its fruit. It inclines to think that the big apple gets a disproportionate share of the national sap.
There are numerous false etymologies given for the Big Apple. One is that it was coined by writer Damon Runyon. It certainly sounds like something Runyon would have coined, but no one has found the phrase in any of his writings. Another claims that it arose in jazz slang. Jazz musicians certainly did use the term and there was a famous Harlem jazz club called The Big Apple, but these uses all postdate the horse racing citations.
Perhaps the most famous and persistent of the false etymologies is that the Big Apple refers to New York prostitution in the 19th century and is a metaphor for Eve’s apple. There is absolutely no evidence to support this.
Copyright 1997-2015, by David Wilton