"Big Apple" antedating

Jesse Sheidlower jester at PANIX.COM
Fri Jan 25 14:28:22 UTC 2008

We've heard a lot about _Big Apple_ in this space in recent
years. As far as I am aware, the current thinking is still
that John Fitz Gerald popularized this from 1921 onwards in
reference to the New York horse-racing circuit. The earliest
example clearly referring to New York itself, not in a racing
context, was a 1928 quote from the N.Y. Times, found some time
ago by Fred Shapiro.

However, yesterday I found the following quote:

  1922 _Chicago Defender_ 16 Sept. 8/1, I trust your trip to
  'the big apple' (New York) was a huge success and only wish
  that I had been able to make it with you.

This was in a musical context, not a horseracing context.
I'll leave speculation, esp. about the idea that this quote
makes it more likely that 'New York' was the original sense
and the racing sense is a specialization, to others.

And wait! There's more.

I shared this quote with Fred and Ben yesterday, who
independently discovered this earlier quote from the same
writer in the same source:

1920 _Chicago Defender_ 15 May 7/1 Dear Pal, Tony: No, Ragtime
Billy Tucker hasn't dropped completely out of existence, but
is still in the 'Big Apple', Los Angeles.

(Note that the punctuation mark after "Big Apple" is unclear;
I assume it's a comma contextually, but it could just as
easily be a period.)

This is earlier than any New York reference, with the
exception of the Martin _Wayfarer_ quote.

I observe also that the 1922 (New York) quote does not
capitalize the phrase, but the 1920 (Los Angeles) one does.  I
don't know how much to read into this. Perhaps we should take
both of these as meaning 'a big city', and the examples are
made contextually specific as necessary.

I'll refrain from any further speculation about the meaning
and development of this, but I'm sure some of you will have
something to say.

Jesse Sheidlower

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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