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Why can't Cecil get his facts straight about the origin of the nickname "Big Apple" and mention John J. Fitz Gerald? My work is on the Web page of the Museum of the City of New York, and I dedicated "Big Apple Corner" at Broadway and W. 54th Street. Why can't Cecil mention this? --Barry Popik

Folks, meet Barry Popik. A man with a mission.

In a 1977 column about the origin of "Big Apple" I wrote, "Of the many theories advanced, the most reasonable seems to be that the phrase originated in showbiz circles. 'There are many apples on the tree,' an old saying supposedly runs, 'but only one Big Apple.' [So] vaudevillians, jazzmen, and other wormy entertainment types dubbed New York, the most important performing venue of them all, the Big Apple." Not the world's most compelling answer, but pretty much the consensus among etymologists at the time.

Enter Barry Popik. By day a NYC parking-ticket judge, by night Popik was an indefatigable word sleuth. In the early 90s he chanced to meet fellow word maven Gerald Cohen at a New York public library. Cohen, a professor at the University of Missouri, mentioned that one early user of the term "Big Apple" was John J. Fitz Gerald, a horse-racing writer for the New York Morning Telegraph. Popik decided to find out whether Fitz Gerald had originated the famous phrase. Holing up at the library during his off-hours, he paged (reeled, actually) through just about every issue of the Telegraph from 1919 to 1929. He found that Fitz Gerald had first used the phrase in 1921 and mentioned it frequently thereafter. The most telling citation was from the first appearance of a column called "Around the Big Apple with John J. Fitz Gerald," which appeared in the Telegraph on February 18, 1924: "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."

Fitz Gerald said he'd first heard the phrase on a trip to New Orleans to see one Jake Byers:

"Two dusky stable hands were leading a pair of thoroughbreds around the 'cooling rings' of adjoining stables at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans and engaging in desultory conversation. '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." Popik found a reference to J.J. Fitz Gerald's having sold a horse to J. Byers on January 15, 1920, leading him to conclude that "Big Apple" had first come to the writer's notice on January 13 or 14.

A bravura performance, you'll agree. Popik proudly notified various New York heavyweights (Mayor Dinkins, the New York Times), figuring that from the standpoint of civic excitement this probably ranked up there with V-J Day or the '69 Mets. Uh-uh. It took five years of nagging to arrange the designation of "Big Apple Corner," the location of Fitz Gerald's last residence. When Popik invited the media to the official proclamation in 1997, he sadly reports, "No one showed up."

Not everyone accepts Popik's explanation as the final word even now. By his own account, John J. Fitz Gerald didn't invent the nickname, he merely popularized it. In The City in Slang: New York Life and Popular Speech (1993), Irving Lewis Allen quotes a 1909 comment by one Martin Wayfarer: "New York [was] merely one of the fruits of that great tree whose roots go down in the Mississippi Valley, and whose branches spread from one ocean to the other....[But] the big apple [New York] gets a disproportionate share of the national sap." A nonce usage, Popik says; there's no evidence "Big Apple" was in common use before 1920. Then again, those stable hands knew what it meant. Be that as it may, Popik has helped advance human knowledge, and Cecil is happy to give credit where it's due. Maybe next week we'll have room for his exposé on the origin of "Windy City."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.


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