the irish apple and the english apple...

George Thompson george.thompson at NYU.EDU
Fri Jan 17 18:12:33 UTC 2003

It is true that as a matter of established fact, the earliest appearance in print of The Big Apple is from the early 1920s, in columns by a horse-racing journalist who heard the expression spoken by a couple of black hot-walkers at the track.  But this of course is not the origin of the term, since the earliest citation makes clear that the term was already in oral use.  Nor is there an explanation for why the term should have been Big Apple as opposed to Big Pumpkin, Long Zucchini (with reference to the shape of the island, perhaps), Great Something, Old Whatever.  Gerry Cohen has speculated that since fruit was often served at the end of a banquet, an apple might have been considered a special treat.  Children were also often given apples and nuts as stocking fillers at Christmas.  But this is a speculation.

Now we have another speculation, that the term arose, I suppose by Hobson-Jobson, from an Irish phrase.  None of our phoneticians have weigh in as to the likelihood of such a development.  We have heard objections that this origin isn't documented, as indeed it isn't.  Presumably whatever is the true origin and explanation of The Big Apple will never be proven,  because at or near the date of origin no note was written down, or because whatever note was written has been lost, or because the note, though still existing, will not be read during our lifetimes by anyone interested enough in the Big Apple to publicize the find.  But who knows.  I'm spending 5-10 hours a week reading NYC newspapers from the 1830s & 1840s.  I've found a 50 year antedating of at least one word, as well as words or senses that aren't in the OED.  As Barry knows, new stuff is being digitized every month.

I posted the courtroom scene from 1821 in the spirit of sending it out into the world to make its fortune.  Its an example of language use in America.  To the present purpose, it showed that Irish was in fact spoken in NYC before the Famine migration, and not only by the common folk, but also by a learned gentleman -- well, by a lawyer, at least.  If Irish was understood then by literate NYers, maybe there was, maybe there still are, written notes giving details of what they said.  The newspaper I'm currently reading once printed a paragraph in Hebrew, just to show that it could, and because the editor the week before had let out an anti-semitic tirade, and he wanted to prove that some of his best friends were Jews.

As for Beverly Flanigan's question: I read the chapter on the Irish language in NY several years ago, and reread only the opening few pages before I sent off my recent missive.  I posted the statement from it that Irish was widely spoken in Ireland in 1800.  As I recall, the author says that even before the Famine the language was beginning to go the way of all low-prestige languages in competition with a language spoken by the holders of power and wealth; and that the Famine and the disruption it caused to Irish society and culture added to this process, until by the late 19th C Irish was spoken only by bogtrotters.

So a hypothesis has been made, and we sit back and await future developments.


George A. Thompson
Author of A Documentary History of "The African
Theatre", Northwestern Univ. Pr., 1998.

----- Original Message -----
From: Daniel Cassidy <DanCas1 at AOL.COM>
Date: Thursday, January 16, 2003 10:07 pm
Subject: the irish apple and the english apple...

> Thanks much for feedback. Please see my version of "apple" again
> and then
> short note below...
> Big Apple
> Big Áth Béil   (gen. of béal)  (pron. ahh-beeul)
> Big Ford of the Mouth (of the Rivers)
> New York City.
> Áth: Ford; a river crossing.
> Béal: Mouth (of a river).
> Belfast: Béal Feirste: Mouth of the sandy bank of Farset River
> Dublin: Baile Átha Cliath: Settlement of the Ford of the Hurdles
> (of the Liffey River).
> New York: The Big Áth Béal: The Big Ford of the Mouth of the
> (Hudson and
> East) rivers.
> New York's monicker, then, incorporates one word each from the
> Irish names
> for Belfast and Dublin.  An ancient Gaelic name for the ancient
> crossing of
> the two great North Atlantic Rivers.
> +++
> A Chairde:   (Friends...)
> The two Irish words A/TH and BE/AL are used in hundreds of place
> names in
> Ireland, Scotland and the Isles.  I believe it is the source of
> the Gaelic
> monicker the "apple" for NYC. If some do not agree with me than
> their big
> apple can be as English as big Liz Windsor.
> as far as citations of Irish words in English, that would be
> humorous if it
> were not for the long and well known depredations of cultural
> imperialism in
> Ireland. the language was first banned in 1366 with the statutes
> of Kilkenny.
> that was copper fastened with the passage of the penal laws in the
> early 18th
> century. a modern dictionary was not published until 1926. the
> Irish language
> was not permitted to be taught in schools in English colonized
> Ireland for
> close to half a millennium.
> 90% of the several million Irish and Scots-Gaelic speakers that
> came to north
> America were illiterate.
> This is the old debate fought by Murray, Furnivall et al. over
> spoken rather
> than written sources.
> With Irish, Native American, African, and other penalized tongue
> you must put
> your ear to the ground.
> I look forward to the discussions...Thanks for the note.
> Sl/an agus Beannachtai/
> Health and Blessings,
> Daniel Cassidy

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