Why is New York City Called The Big Apple?

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New York City has been called many things—“The Great American Melting Pot,” “Gotham,” “The City that Never Sleeps”—but its most famous nickname, without a doubt, is “The Big Apple.” But where did this now ubiquitous moniker come from?

Making A Big Apple

There have been many ideas about how New York came to be called “The Big Apple.” Some say it comes from the former well-to-do families that sold apples on New York City streets to make ends meet during the Great Depression. Another account says that the term comes from a famous nineteenth century brothel madam named Eve whose girls were cheekily referred to as her “Big Apples.” But the nickname actually springs from a catchphrase used in the 1920s by New York Morning Telegraph sports writer John J. Fitz Gerald in his horse racing column, “Around the Big Apple.” Starting on February 18, 1924, he began the every column with the header, “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.”

At the time, the jockeys and trainers of smaller horses were said to want to make a “Big Apple," their name for the big money prizes at larger races in and around New York City. Allegedly, Fitz Gerald first heard "The Big Apple" used to describe New York's racetracks by two African-American stable hands at the famed New Orleans Fair Grounds, as he explained in his inaugural "Around the Big Apple" column: “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 headin' for The Big Apple,’ proudly replied the other. ‘Well, you'd better fatten up them skinners or all you'll get from the apple will be the core,’ was the quick rejoinder.” Fitz Gerald nabbed the colloquialism for his column, where it took off.

Catching On

Once the term entered the vocabularies of society up north, its popularity slowly spread outside of the horseracing context, and everything from nightclubs in Harlem to hit songs and dances about the city were named after “The Big Apple.” Most notably, New York jazz musicians in the 1930s, whose habits of using the nickname to reference their hometown in their songs, made the name spread outside the northeast.

Throughout the mid-20th century, it remained New York City's nickname until it was officially adopted by the city in the 1970s. The New York Convention and Visitors Bureau hoped that using the moniker would brighten the image of an economically downtrodden and crime-ridden city in decline and revive the tourist economy. In 1997, to give Fitz Gerald his—somewhat unjust—due, Mayor Rudy Giuliani signed legislation naming the corner where Fitz Gerald and his family lived at West 54th Street and Broadway between 1934 and 1963 “Big Apple Corner.”

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December 10, 2012 - 3:00am
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