Why New York City is Called “The Big Apple”

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new-yorkThe earliest documented reference to New York being referred to as “The Big Apple” comes from a 1909 book by Edward Martin, called The Wayfarer. In it, he uses the moniker in a metaphorical sense, rather than a proper name for the city:

Kansas is apt to see in New York a greedy city… It inclines to think that the big apple gets a disproportionate share of the national sap…

The next known documented instance of New York being called “The Big Apple” comes from sportswriter John J. Fitz Gerald who began popularizing the name starting on May 3, 1921, where he stated in a column:

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.

In this case, he was referencing the early 1920s practice of calling certain race courses in the New York City region this particular fruity name; the New York City races tended to payout significant prizes to the winner compared to races in many other regions, hence “big apple.”

According to linguist Dr. Gerald Cohen, this wasn’t out of the ordinary, even outside of horse racing. As he states,

Apples were important throughout history, but the big red delicious apples developed in Iowa in the 1870s came to be regarded as extra special. That led to ‘the big apple’ being applied to things and people who were extra special, or perhaps only thought they were…

As to applying this to New York City, it’s thought that Fitz Gerald didn’t come up with this on his own but rather heard it from people from New Orleans in 1920 when he traveled down to that city to supposedly sell one of his horses, with the common tale being that it came from a couple of stable hands.

Fitz Gerald explicitly mentions this three years later in his 1924 column “Around the Big Apple,” though it’s possible he just made the story up:

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.

This nickname for New York City gradually caught on and began being used in a non-sporting sense, including a popular song/dance coming out in the 1930s called “The Big Apple,” as well as numerous references in other songs, particularly in jazz music.

However, this nickname for the city died off by the 1960s and few outside of the city would have understood the reference had you used it then. That all changed in the 1970s when Charles Gillett and the New York Convention and Visitors Bureau decided to revive the nickname in a tourism campaign. In this campaign, they began aggressively advertising New York City as a tourist hotspot and referred to it as “The Big Apple,” using bright, clean looking red apples in their advertisements to attempt to contrast the popular notion of the day that New York City was a dirty place where you were as likely to be mugged as not if you visited there.

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Bonus Fact:

  • If you’ve been in New York City since 1997, you might notice the corner of 54th and Broadway is called “Big Apple Corner.” This is in homage to Fitz Gerald who lived near there for nearly three decades, from 1934 to 1963 when he died.
Expand for References
  • Besides the aforementioned work by Dr. Gerald Cohen, much of the legwork for discovering Fitz Gerald’s involvement in getting New York City called “The Big Apple” was done by etymologist Barry Popik.  You can read more about his seminal work in this subject here.
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  • >>According to linguist Dr. Gerald Cohen,<>heard it from people from New Orleans in 1920 when he traveled down to that city to supposedly sell one of his horse<>Fitz Gerald explicitly mentions this three years later in his 1923 column “Around the Big Apple,” though it’s possible he just made the story up:<>If you’ve been in New York City since 1997, you might notice the corner of 54th and Broadway is called “Big Apple Corner.”<<
    I worked for many years to dedicate this.

    I am amazed that you take my work and give me no compensation or credit whatsoever.

    • My reply has been chopped up. Fitz Gerald’s column was in 1924, not 1923. It was found by me. Fitz Gerald said the same thing twice, and there is no reason to suspect that he did not truthfully credit the black stablehands. I dedicated “Big Apple Corner” in 1997. My work here is used without compensation or credit!

      • Daven Hiskey

        @Barry Popik: “Fitz Gerald’s column was in 1924, not 1923.” I do believe you’re right from a quick Google search. I’m going to re-research it, of course, as is my standard practice whenever a potential error in an article here comes up. But just from the quick search, I think you’re correct. At the least, I hope you can see from this that you weren’t one of my references. On your website, it very clearly states 1924 right at the top of the homepage. 🙂
        “there is no reason to suspect that he did not truthfully credit the black stablehands.” The thing there is more of a skeptical mindset that I take to everything here. It’s amazing how often such first hand anecdotes upon deeper research turn out to be untrue or at the least seemingly unlikely. Journalists particularly like to embellish stories, or sometimes just completely make up a good origin story for the sake of having a story to tell when in fact sometimes the real back story was just things like sitting around thinking about whatever until they came up with something, like a nickname. In my research over the years, I’ve come across loads of such false or embellished anecdotes. So I’ve become very skeptical over the years of any such anecdote where there isn’t multiple primary sources for a story. Besides embellishing or making things up, human memory simply isn’t that great, and we all have an amazing number of false memories.
        Am I being overly skeptical? At times very probably. But I detest getting things wrong (that 1924 / 1923 thing is irking me right now, for instance… Kills me when I get such things even slightly incorrect. ;-)). So to guard against that, unless I have multiple primary sources for such an anecdote, I’ll almost always put in the caveat, if there is just one primary source. 🙂
        In any event, thank you for catching that 1923 thing. Once I’m done doing a deep re-research of the topic, assuming it definitely was 1924, which I think you’re right about, I’ll fix it.

    • Daven Hiskey

      @Barry Popik: I’ve never seen your website before. The primary source for this article, or at least the basis, was Dr. Gerald Cohen’s work on the subject, as mentioned in the article. I, of course, double check everything with numerous sources (mostly primary if I can find them), but Dr. Cohen’s work was the starting point.
      From your website and listed name in your comment, I’m guessing you are not Dr. Cohen. Now, Dr. Cohen may well have used your work, and if you really were the one to uncover Fitz Gerald’s work, then I suspect he did. But my notes on the subject don’t mention that, else I’d have referenced you as well along with him.
      From your website, it does seem like you’ve put a lot of work into this subject. So it’s not surprising that your work on the subject and this one match up in the core facts. It does appear you’ve added a lot more detail than is appropriate for a TIFO style article, so I would recommend anyone reading this who wants to learn more to check out your site. But facts are facts. If I were to deviate from them to distance myself from Dr. Cohen’s work (or yours as well as it appears), then the article wouldn’t be perfectly accurate given the current state of human knowledge on the particular subject. 🙂
      So in the end, after looking over your site, I have little doubt you’ve put a lot of work into this area. But you were not one of my references, as I never came across your site. For this subject in particular I spent more time in a library than on Google after I came across Dr. Cohen’s work. 🙂

  • You’ve never seen seen my website before? Dude, you’ve credited my website before! This is one TIFO article that lists no references whatsoever. List them!

    Dr. Cohen and I were co-authors of the ‘Big Apple” book. I found that 1924 “Around the Big Apple” column–not Dr. Cohen, and it’s not from 1923. I found it–after hundreds of hours searching the New York Morning Telegraph. I found that Fitz Gerald visited the New Orleans Fair Grounds in 1920–not Dr. Cohen. I worked five years to dedicate Big Apple Corner–not Dr. Cohen. Yes, facts are facts, but you get them wrong and you do not credit the source.

    • Daven Hiskey

      @Barry Popik: “you’ve credited my website before!” I haven’t written much on this site for about a year now (just mostly editing now), and I don’t have a photographic memory. 🙂 Out of curiosity, which article? This is the first one I’ve dealt with this topic on, though it’s possible one of TIFO’s writers has covered areas of it. I’m not sure. (There are over 2,300 articles here now, and I certainly don’t remember them all, even among those I’ve written. :-)). But I hope at the least the fact that apparently you have been credited before demonstrates I have no qualms about crediting you on things. 😉
      “but you get them wrong” Nobody bats a thousand. Encyclopedia Britannica, perhaps one of the most accurate huge sample-size general knowledge works in human history has about 2.92 errors per science article on their website. TIFO has a much better rate than that, but of course we don’t cover near the depth or breadth of works, so it’s easier for us. Britannica’s rate is really quite remarkable given the vastness of their work. As noted, I’m also not hesitant to be overly skeptical on things, which helps the accuracy a bit. We’re more about giving people a taste of a subject, to perhaps interest them in going to learn more.
      “and you do not credit the source.” As I said, my basis was an article I read from Dr. Cohen (who I credited), which did not mention you. Beyond that, I went and triple checked everything myself as always, and again, while all those sources I read to triple check things may well have been referencing your work, nobody mentioned it explicitly. This isn’t to demean your work in any way, I am very grateful for it (beyond this article, there aren’t enough people who do proper research on things), but I don’t know how I’m supposed to have referenced you when I have no notes nor memory of reading your work on the subject, or anyone mentioning it from what I did read.
      Now that I know you are the ultimate source uncovering Fitz Gerald’s work, I’m happy to send people to your site to read more if they’re interested in more details and credit you appropriately. But doing that beforehand simply isn’t something I could have done, having been previously ignorant of your involvement.
      As you note, the vast majority of TIFO articles list the references for each piece of information (excepting Eddie’s articles, but most of his are Beatles based and he’s one of the world’s leading experts there, so often writes them off the information in his head), so hopefully that makes it clear we’re always happy to do that. (And in fact, it’s actually among the rules I send to new authors.) In this case, beyond Dr. Cohen nothing is listed simply because what I read from Dr. Cohen pretty much summed it up.
      For each point I like to include just one primary reference for people to explore more on, though of course always double check things with multiple sources, just to make sure the listed one is correct. (I usually pick the most reputable one of the bunch for each piece of information to list, and the one that has the most additional information.) In most articles, information is pulled from numerous sources, which is why there are (usually) numerous references. But what I read from Dr. Cohen had everything (and more). So there seemed little point in including all my secondary sources. He was the best one I knew about. Had I known of your work being the basis of what I read from Dr. Cohen, I would have simply referenced you, but I did not know about it at the time, which is unfortunate as you’ve got some interesting additional information there I’d have liked to include. 🙂
      This is one of those cases where spending a little more time web-searching a topic, instead of other forms of research, would have been more beneficial, as I no doubt would have come across your site at some point. 🙂 I do apologize for giving Dr. Cohen the credit for your work, but from what I read, it seemed like he was the one who made these discoveries so I thought it only fitting to use him as the primary source. Once I’m done re-researching the 1923/1924 bit and other such things, I’ll edit the above to include a mention of your work. (Any time a potential error is discovered, I re-research the entire article to make sure whatever source resulted in the one error didn’t result in any others. Sometimes it is just a typo, but other times not, and in this case my notes say 1923 for some reason, which itself could be just a typo in my notes. But regardless, one never can tell whether it was simply a typo or a faulty source without re-researching.)

  • Again: This is one TIFO article that lists no references whatsoever. List them!

    FYI, it was the “Oscar” article. You took about five paragraphs from my website. Mental Floss reprinted it this past week.

    • Daven Hiskey

      @Barry Popik: Ah yes, this one from 2012 for those interested. Mental_floss never lists the sources, even when they copy my articles that do of course list them. You do good work. Are you at all interested in writing for TIFO? I’m always looking for good writers and currently have no one who specializes in the etymology of things. Every such great etymologist writer I’ve asked so far has said they’re not interested. To be fair, every one I’ve asked runs their own sites, but TIFO being much more popular than those, I held out some small hope they’d be interested, if nothing else to help promote their own sites by getting their name out there more, but no dice thus far. One of these days someone is going to say yes though, so I keep asking. 🙂

      • Daven Hiskey

        @Barry Popik: Of course now that I read through your very impressive bio a bit, I’m guessing you too will be one of the many great etymologists who turn me down. It’s now official that every single writer I’ve sought out to contribute etymology articles to TIFO has previously contributed to the Oxford English Dictionary. It’s kind of uncanny, as my exposure has always simply been reading articles they’ve written on their website that I was particularly impressed with, rather than seeking out contributors to the OED. 🙂
        Of course, now that I’ve read your bio… I’m even more interested in having you write language history/etymology type articles for TIFO. Email me here if you’re interested and we can discuss the details.