Monday, November 21, 2011
How New York Became ‘The Big Apple’
All cities eventually acquire nicknames.
has been called “The Windy City,” but not because of persistent breeziness. The explanation is even more prosaic: Its citizens were regarded as overly talkative. Chicago
New Orleans has been dubbed ”The Big Easy,” thanks to its relaxed lifestyle and its willingness to look the other way at the shenanigans of citizens and visitors..
Less easy to fathom or trace is the origin of "The Big Apple" as a nickname for
. The first appearance in print of this curious term apparently was in 1909 by Edward S. Martin, a prolific poet and writer. In the introduction to The Wayfarer in New York, his modest little anthology of other writers’ impressions of the city, Martin wrote: New York
Kansas is apt to see in a greedy city. . . . New York New York is merely one of the fruits of that great tree whose roots go down in the and whose branches spread from one ocean to the other. . . . It [ Mississippi Valley Kansas] inclines to think that the big apple [ ] gets a disproportionate share of the national sap." New York
Martin, founder in 1883 of the satirical magazine Life and its first editor, was no stuffy literary bluenose. Casting a disapproving eye on the prohibition of alcohol after the First World War, he remarked nostalgically about spiritus frumenti: "Wisely used, it makes dinner parties livelier, public dinners more tolerable, wedding guests more blithe and life in general pleasanter."
Whether Martin's bookish and metaphorical use of 'big apple' reflected its usage in vernacular speech is unknown. Word maven and columnist William Safire considered it the initial use of the term, but the Random House Dictionary of American Slang calls the usage "metaphorical or perhaps proverbial, rather than a concrete example of the later slang term."
Horse Racing Connections
The next appearance of the term “Big Apple” was in 1921 in the pages of the New York Morning Telegraph, then the preeminent
newspaper reporting on sports and entertainment. In a casual reference in the May 3, 1921, issue, turf reporter John J. Fitz Gerald, employing the parlance of followers of the "sport of kings," wrote: New York
"J.P. Smith, with Tippety Witchet and others of the L.T. Bauer string, is scheduled to start for 'the big apple' tomorrow after a most prosperous Spring campaign at Bowie and Havre de Grace."
The phrase obviously had wide enough currency among racing fans to be understood by his readers.
, March 7, 1893, John J. Fitz Gerald never finished high school and joined the Morning Telegraph in 1912. He left in 1918 to buy horses, but was drafted shortly afterwards. Fitz Gerald rejoined the newspaper’s staff in 1919 following his discharge. Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
In his Morning Telegraph column dated Feb. 18, 1924, headed "Around the Big Apple," Fitz Gerald told this story:
"The Big Apple. The dream of every lad that ever threw a leg over a thoroughbred and the goal of all horsemen. There's only one Big Apple. That's
. New York
"Two dusky stable hands were leading a pair of thoroughbreds around the 'cooling rings' of adjoining stables at the Fair Grounds in
and engaging in desultory conversation. New Orleans
“'Where y'all goin' from here?' queried one.
“'From here we're headed for the Big Apple,’ proudly replied the other.
"'Well, you'd better fatten up them skinners or all you'll get from the apple is the core,' was the quick rejoinder."
Fitz Gerald's reference to the "dusky" stable hands raises the possibility that the term has its roots in African-American culture. Support for this is found in the Chicago Defender, a nationally circulated African-American newspaper. “Ragtime” Billy Tucker, a vaudeville/ragtime performer and writer for the paper, used "big apple" to refer to
in a non-horse-racing context on September 16, 1922: New York
“I trust your trip to 'the big apple' (
) was a huge success and only wish that I had been able to make it with you.” New York
Tucker had earlier used "big apple" in a Defender story dated May 15, 1920, but referring to a different city,
. That example may be the earliest known use of "big apple" to refer to any city. It is possible that Tucker simply understood "big apple" to be an appropriate nickname for any large city: Los Angeles
John J. Fitz Gerald became the turf editor of the Morning Telegraph in 1925, at 32 the youngest in that job. The following year, he felt obliged to explain the origin of the Big Apple term again, with a few slight variations. In the Morning Telegraph, Dec. 1, 1926, he told essentially the same story:
"So many people have asked the writer about the derivation of his phrase 'the big apple' that he is forced to make another explanation. A number of years back, when racing a few horses at the Fair Grounds with Jake Byer, he was watching a couple of stable hands cool out a pair of 'hots' in a circle outside the stable.
"A boy from the adjoining barn called over, 'Where you shipping after the meeting?' To this one of the lads replied. 'Why, we ain't no bull-ring stable, we's goin' to 'the big apple.'
"The reply was bright and snappy. 'Boy, I don't know what you're goin' to that apple with those hides for. All you'll get is the rind.'"
By 1927, Walter Winchell, a notorious borrower of words and phrases for his gossip column, picked up and unabashedly used the expression. A year later New York American columnist O.O. McIntyre used it in his column, "
New York Day by Day."
In 1935, the Big Apple night club opened in Harlem at West 135th Street and
Seventh Avenue. A plaque on the building marks the spot. The expression was then common among Negro musicians. By 1937 a song and a dance style called the Big Apple were briefly popular.
In 1940, Fit Gerald quit the Morning Telegraph to do public relations for various racetracks, including the Garden State Racetrack and the Atlantic City Race Course in New Jersey as well as the Tropical Park Race Track in Miami, Florida. He was the editor of the Daily Sports Bulletin in his later years.
Death and Belated Recognition
Shortly after his 70th birthday, John Joseph Fitz Gerald died on March 17, 1963, in the seedy
at 54th Streetand Broadway. Ironically, his death happened during the crippling 114-day midtown Hotel Bryant newspaper strike. The Morning Telegraph, which was not hit by the strike, was the only paper to print his obituary. New York City
In 1971, "The Big Apple" was officially promoted as a nickname for
by Charles Gillett, 55, president of the City's Convention and Visitors Bureau. It was a welcome replacement for Mayor John V. Lindsay’s ill-timed appellation (“I still think it’s a fun city.”) conferred at the start of the 1966 New York City transit strike. New York City
Not until Rudolph Giuliani’s first term as mayor did John J. Fitz Gerald receive indirect recognition for his part in the coinage of the term Big Apple. On May 3, 1997, the 76th anniversary of the expression's first use in print by Fitz Gerald, a sign reading “Big Apple Corner” was added to a lamppost at the southwest corner of 54th Street and Broadway, near site of the hotel in which he lived for many years.
The event received little advance publicity, and it rained so heavily during the ceremony only one person witnessed the unveiling. He was a Fitz Gerald enthusiast named Barry Popik, a
parking violations judge. Popik had been the driving force in a long campaign to get the city to recognize Fitz Gerald as the first to record the use of this colorful idiom by a pair of black stable hands in New York City . New Orleans