July 20, 2004

Save the Big Apple

You can help rescue the Big Apple from a French brothel-keeper. Etymologically speaking, that is.

If you ask Google for {big apple history}, the top-ranked site (http://salwen.com/apple.html) will tell you about Evelyn Claudine de Saint-Évremond, who immigrated from France in 1803, started a bordello, acquired the nickname "Eve", and therefore "would refer to the temptresses in her employ as 'my irresistable [sic] apples'", blah blah. According to Salwen's (uncited) "unique archival sources".

But the truth, according to Barry Popik, is that the term was invented by African-American stable hands in New Orleans, and was first used in print on May 3, 1921, in a horseracing column by sportswriter John J. Fitz Gerald:

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...

Fitz Gerald explained the term in a column on February 18, 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.
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.

Fitz Gerald gave a slightly different version of the "big apple" story on December 1, 1926:

So many people have asked the writer about the derivation of his phrase, “the big apple,” that he is forced to make another explanation. New Orleans has called it to his mind again.

A number of years back, when racing a few horses at the Fair Grounds with Jake Byer, he was watching a couple of stable hands cool out a pair of “hots” in a circle outside the stable.

A boy from an adjoining barn called over. “Where you shipping after the meeting?”

To this one of the lads replied, “Why we ain’t no bull-ring stable, we’s goin’ to ‘the big apple.’”

The reply was bright and snappy.

“Boy, I don’t know what you’re goin’ to that apple with those hides for. All you’ll get is the rind.”

So link to Barry Popik's pages, and help Google steer internet pilgrims towards the truth!

[Update 8/2/2004: No, link to this summary page at Popik's web site!]

[Link via Grant Barrett]

[Update 7/21/2004: Jerry Kreuscher emailed

John Ciardi's 1982 "A Browser's Dictionary" has a different story. His story has New Orleans in common with you citations, but claims to begin a little earlier. It is:

The Big Apple The all-but-official nickname of New York City. [Charles Gillett, president of the New York Convention and Visitors Bureau, initiated (c. 1971-1972) the campaign to have the nickname officially adopted. Mr. Gillett calls the nickname a "positive upbeat symbol" and claims that it has become "the most successful city slogan in the history of tourism." So the robotics of enthusiasm.

The term originated among black jazz musicians of New Orleans c. 1910, as a translation of Sp. manzana principal. Manzana means "apple", but also "tract of land" (apple orchard), and in common usage "city block." Manzana principal a main city block, downtown, the main stem, where the action is. The term later passed into show biz with the sense "the big time," and thence prob. to Mr. Gillett, but it has always remained a special term for jazz men. In his book Hi De Ho (1936) Cab Calloway defined the Big Apple as "the big town, the main stem, Harlem."

Barry Popik also discusses Gillett's role, manzana principal, and Ciardi's dictionary entry, but dismisses them as one of the list of eight "false etymologies" that he places down at the very bottom of his interesting but nearly unreadable index page.]

[Update #2: Jerry Kreuscher isn't convinced:

The claim that there wouldn't be a Spanish term in New Orleans slang is wrong. The counter-example "lagniappe", which OED says comes from Spanish "la ñapa", leaps to mind. New Orleans became a Spanish town when France ceded it after the Seven Years War, and there was Spanish land along the Gulf coast just to the east in what was then called "the Floridas." Spanish was not unfamiliar there.

Since this correction came a decade before Mr. Ciardi put his version in his book, I'll suppose that it did not convince him, either. In going this far, I'm over my head, but my affections are with Mr. Ciardi.

I've got no dog in this fight, myself. And I agree that lagniappe is a good example of what the AHD calls "the rich Creole dialect mixture of New Orleans". But judging from his web site, Mr. Popik seems to be so skilled at hiding his light under a series of bushels that Mr. Ciardi might well have remained unaware of the attempt at correction.

More significantly, there is in fact no real contradiction in (this aspect of) the two accounts, since Popik's claim is only that New Orleans stable hands used the term "big apple" for New York around 1920, and that John J. Fitz Gerald publicized this usage in a series of sports columns in the New York Morning Telegraph during the 1920s. Popik has nothing to say (unless it's hidden in a corner of his web site that I didn't explore yet) about where the stable hands' usage came from.

And everyone seems to agree that the (mythical?) Mlle. de Saint-Évremond was not involved.]


Posted by Mark Liberman at July 20, 2004 08:10 PM