"Big Onion" (NYC) in _Angel of Darkness_

Gerald Cohen gcohen at UMR.EDU
Sun Jul 29 21:14:31 UTC 2001

    Two months ago Barry Popik contacted me about the incorrect
assertion that NYC was known as "The Big Onion" before being
nicknamed "The Big Apple." There is absolutely no contemporary
evidence to back up this "Big Onion" theory, and not a single scholar
has supported it. Still, it seems to have gained at least some
acceptance from the NY Public Library, which in turn is disseminating

    Barry tells me the supposed evidence is in Caleb Carr's novel
(written 1997!)
_Angel of Darkness_. So I've started reading through it for mentions
of "The Big Onion."

     I first skimmed the book and then read the first two chapters.
I'll hold off a final judgment until the end, but meanwhile I think I
see what's going on.
Mention of "this Big Onion" (= NYC) comes already on page 4 and Caleb
Carr is writing as if the year is 1919. Referring to people who stop
by a cigarette shop before heading for the gaming tables and dance
halls, he writes:

     "Most of their activities won't amount to nothing, of course, but
that doesn't matter;  part of the strange fun of getting rooked into
thinking that anything's possible on the beaten, dirty streets of
this Big Onion is knowing that if you don't find what you're looking
for tonight, it's all that much more important that you try again

     Now, why would the author refer to NYC just above as "this Big
Onion"? Apparently because of the (bad) smells of the city. Two
(1) page 6: "...the May breeze continuing to carry the nastier smells
of the city off to points east."
(2) page 551: "New York City is never uglier than at daybreak, and it
never smells worse than during the month of August."

     So, Caleb Carr, writing in 1997 and well aware of NYC's nickname
"The Big Apple" has altered it slightly to fit his literary purposes.
Hence the appearance of "Big Onion" in his 1997 work, which is
totally irrelevant to what was actually happening in 1919 unless he
or someone else can produce an early attestation.  Thus far Barry's
efforts to get the documentary evidence have proven fruitless (or in
this case, vegetable-less).

----Gerald Cohen

>From: Bapopik at aol.com
>Date: Mon, 04 Jun 2001
>Subject: Fwd: Re: Big Onion
>To: <gcohen at umr.edu>
>    "Big Onion" is a (walking) tour company in New York City.  It
>advertises that, before NYC was called "the Big Apple," it was
>called "the Big Onion."  It brought tears to the eyes of poor people.
>    I wrote to them to provide citations, but I got no response.
>    The New York Public Library--the great library that says "Big
>Apple" comes from whores--has "Big Onion" on its "Ask a Librarian"
>segment at, roughly, http://www.nypl.org/branch...
>    This person wrote to Deja.com that a novel had "Big Onion" before
>the 1920s.  I asked which book it was; it's by Caleb Carr, the
>fellow who also wrote THE ALIENIST.
>    This is really bad.
>--Barry Popik

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