"Big Apple" prostitution etymology, pt. 1

Gerald Cohen gcohen at UMR.EDU
Thu May 31 15:33:29 UTC 2001

    On May 29 Barry Popik, noticed another instance of the
prostitution-etymology for "The Big Apple" and commented:

    Not a day goes by...
>    'Think of the New York (sic) with its "Big Apple" tag.  It arose
>by accident when a brothel keeper changed her name from Evelyn to
>Eve and her ladies were named "Eve's Apples."  The Apple Marketing
>Board then sanitised it with "An apple a day..." and New York got an
>appealing nickname known round the world.  No government got near
>the origins of that one, you can be sure.'


    Ultimately, the prostitution-etymology of "The Big Apple" is
almost certainly a joke, a spoof, although the possibility of mere
scholarly sloppiness cannot be  ruled out. I would like to take a
close look at that etymology and will need at least a few ADS-L
messages to do so. (Mark Mandel has already commented generally on
the subject, 3/6/2000)
    The originator of the prostitution-etymology is apparently
http://salwen.com/apple.html ----The Web-site article here is
entitled 'Why Is New York City Called "The Big Apple?"
        'When and how did New York City come to be called "The Big Apple"?'
This is by far the most frequently asked question submitted to our
New York History Hotline.
        'In popular folklore, the name is usually traced to early
jazz musicians or long-ago sports figures.  Often the explanation of
the co-called "origin" of this phrase is accompanied with
plausible-sounding historical or biographical details, giving it an
unmistakable (but alas, totally spurious) "ring of truth."
        'Because this question continues to excite curiosity and
because the real facts are quite well known to serious historians, we
provide the following authoritative account, based on our unique
archival sources.
        'The story may disappoint some readers--truth, after all, is
often less colorful than fiction.  but facts are facts.'-----[Then
the etymology is given.]
  (G. Cohen): Here are my thoughts on the above introduction:

1) "...traced to...long-ago sports figures." ---The only sports
figure it's been traced to is turf writer John J. Fitz Gerald. And
his role does not belong to "popular folklore." His writings and his
role in popularizing "the big apple" (= NYC racetracks) are
specifically attested.

2) "plausible sounding historical or biographical details, giving it
[a]... totally spurious 'ring of truth.'"---I would welcome an
attempt by salwen to show why the two 1920s items written by John J.
Fitz Gerald (discovered by Barry Popik), explaining how he acquired
the term "the big apple" from two stable hands (clearly
African-American) in New Orleans is in any way spurious.

3) "...because the real facts are quite well known to serious
historians"  ---Barry Popik and I are the two scholars who have done
the most research into the origin of "The Big Apple." I have written
a book and several articles on the subject, with the articles
containing the very valuable discoveries of Popik's. Due credit in
the articles is given to other scholars who have made contributions,
and Popik has also written an article on the name.  Neither he nor I
are aware of any scholar, serious or otherwise, who has spoken in
favor of "The Big Apple" arising from a 19th century brothel.

4) "we provide the following authoritative account." ---It would be
more authoritative if it cited sources to support its uncertain

5) "...based on our unique archival sources."---Unique? As in not to
be found anywhere else, not in any U.S. library, including those of
the historical societies? Why aren't those unique archival sources
copiously cited?

---(to be continued)

Gerald Cohen
Professor of Foreign Languages,
Research specialty; Etymology,
author/editor, _Studies in Slang_, vols. 1-5;
vol. 6 is co-edited with Barry Popik;
and (1991) _Origin Of New York City's Nickname "The Big Apple"_

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