Big Apples and Red Herrings

Benjamin Zimmer bgzimmer at BABEL.LING.UPENN.EDU
Fri May 15 22:34:56 UTC 2009

On Fri, May 15, 2009 at 6:14 PM, George Thompson wrote:

> What to make of this?
> POMONA'S LAST AND LARGEST.  [14 1/2 inches around; grown by Thomas
> Gardner of Paramus]]  It was a "big apple."
> N-Y Commercial Advertiser, September 4, 1848, p. 2, col. 3
> Doubtless no connection with our favorite "Big Apple", but why the quotation
> marks?  Were "scare quotes" -- I believe they have been called that here,
> I've never known a name for them -- in use 160 years ago?  I've the
> impression that they are more recent.  Are the "" just meant to emphasize the
> words?  "It was one hell of a big apple."
> But if they are there to call attention to an allusion or catch-phrase, then
> maybe there is some connection. . . ?

Possibly alluding to idiomatic "big apple" expressions then floating around,
like "to bet a big apple" ('to state with supreme assurance; to be absolutely
confident of'), dated by OED3 to 1847.

--Ben Zimmer

The American Dialect Society -

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