"Big Apple" prostitution etymology, pt. 3

Gerald Cohen gcohen at UMR.EDU
Fri Jun 1 20:42:03 UTC 2001

    Here is the third installment of my look at the prostitution-etymology
of "The Big Apple," as it appears in http://salwen.com/apple.html
In my last message I left off with salwen having gone semantically
from "apples" as high-class prostitutes (not proven as a general
term) to "apples" as having sexual connotations (not demonstrated for the U.S.
beyond a possibly very limited use) to "apples" as somehow
figuratively indicating NYC's numerous brothels. None of this
semantic development sounds convincing.

      With "apples" figuratively indicating NYC's brothels, salwen
then mentions William Jennings Bryan.  Commenting that Bryan was
hardly the first to denounce NY as a sink of iniquity, salwen adds
that he seems to have been the first to use the "apple" epithet in
public discourse, branding the city, in a widely reprinted campaign
speech, as "the foulest Rotten Apple on the Tree of decadent
Federalism." Now, maybe he was the first to use the "apple" epithet
and maybe he wasn't. But salwen then adds; "The
double-entendre--i.e., as a reference to both political and sexual
corruption--would have been well understood by voters of the time."

      Actually, I don't see any evidence of a double-entendre here, no
sexual connotation at all. Rotten apples, decadent
Federalism--where's the sex here? Where's even a hint of
prostitution? In 19th century American speech there is no evidence of
"apple" = "prostitute" or "brothel" beyond possibly very limited use.

    Salwen continues with a flat-out inaccurate statement: "The term
'Big Apple' or 'The Apple' had already passed into general use as a
sobriquet for New York City by 1907, when one guidebook included the
comment, "Some may think the Apple is losing some of its sap." In
fact, though, "The Big Apple" or "The Apple" was most definitely not
in general use as a sobriquet for New York City by 1907. The only
possible evidence at all for its use prior to the 1920s is a single
attestation--just one--in a book written in 1909 (not 1907): Edward
Martin's _A Wayfarer In New York_ (pp.xiv-xv). And this single
attestation is very controversial, having (I believe) the meaning
"(overweaning) big shot." The reference was to NYC (as viewed by the
Mid-West). But in 1909 "the big apple" was no more NYC's nickname
than "The Big Enchilada" is Washington D.C.'s nickname, even though
"the big enchilada" can be used to describe Washington in a
discussion of political power.

     The meaning of Edward Martin's single reference to NYC as "the
big apple" may be open to debate. What is not open to debate is its
isolated use. Barry Popik and I have read through extensive newspaper
materials from the 1890s through 1920 over a period of some 12 years.
We have both been keenly interested in "The Big Apple," and if this
sobriquet had turned up anywhere in our readings, it would have
hopped off the page for us. "Gotham"--yes, "Lil ol' New Yawk"--yes.
But with the exception of Edward Martin's 1909 attestation, the
search for "The Big Apple" (capitalized or not) prior to the 1920s is
a search for the will o' the wisp. It's just not there.

    Also, note turf writers John J. Fitz Gerald's 1926 item (_Morning
Telegraph_, Dec. 1, 1926, p.11; spotted by Barry Popik): "...So many
people have asked the writer about the derivation of his phrase, 'the
big apple,' that he is forced to make another explanation. ..." Note
the words 'HIS PHRASE.' Why would people write to Fitz Gerald asking
about the derivation of "his phrase" (i.e., "the big apple") if "the
big apple" were already a generally-used sobriquet of New York?

      Incidentally, I assume that salwen's 1907 reference is really
intended for Edward Martin's 1909 book. This is not a guidebook but a
collection of essays by various authors. And the relevant quote is
not "Some may think the Apple is losing some of its sap," but "...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. It is disturbed by the
enormous drawing power of a metropolis which constantly attracts to
itself wealth and its possessors from all the less centers of the

    A few final remarks will be made in my next message.

---Gerald Cohen

               The term "Big Apple" or "The Apple" had already passed
into general use as a sobriquet for New York City by 1907, when one
guidebook included the comment, "Some may think the Apple is losing
some of its sap." Interestingly, the phrase had also become pretty
well "sanitized" in the process, thanks to a vigorous campaign
mounted just after the turn of the
century by the Apple Marketing Board, a trade group based in upstate
Cortland, New York.
               Alarmed by sharply declining sales, the Association
launched what some believe to be the earliest example of what would
now be called a "product positioning campaign."

               By devising and energetically promoting such slogans as
"An apple a day keeps the Doctor away" and "as American as apple
pie!" the A.M.B. was able to successfully "rehabilitate" the apple as
a popular comestible, free of unsavory associations. It is believed
that the group also distributed apples to the poor for sale on the
city's streets during the Great Depression (1930 38). No convincing
documentary evidence has been produced to support this,

My slang database offers the following sexual connotations for Apples. Like
Jonathan Lighter, I have nothing specific to the 19C.

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