Big Apple, Pie

Stephanie March asks why New York is called “the Big Apple” [Down the Hatch, October] and notes that “one theory is that the nickname was coined by jazz greats like Charlie Parker.” While this is a popular theory, it’s been disproven. I’m attaching a research note by Yale librarian Fred Shapiro:

“The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang documents the usage of Big Apple by sportswriter John J. FitzGerald starting in 1921 to refer to the New York horse racing circuit. Since the dictionary was published, a 1924 column by FitzGerald has been discovered, in which FitzGerald pretty clearly makes the transition from talking about the horse-racing circuit to using Big Apple to mean New York City. The Oxford English Dictionary records a 1928 glossary of movie terms in the New York Times in which one of the entries reads ‘The Big Apple—New York City.’ Many people assert that Big Apple originated in a jazz context, but the above evidence clearly disproves this theory.”

While I’m at it, I note that March suggests that the term “upper crust” came from an alleged Depression-era assumption that only rich families would make apple pie with an upper as well as a lower crust. Unfortunately for these theory, the term “upper crust” in this sense can be traced back at least to 1836 and Thomas Haliburton’s Canadian comic novel The Clockmaker (and from context, there seems to have already been well known enough to need no explanation). That’s a good century or so before the Depression by my reckoning. The Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, which supplied the Haliburton citation, says that “the upper crust was at one time the part of the loaf placed before the most honored guests.” Nothing to do with apples, it appears.

—Dennis Lien
Minneapolis