big apple nyc new york city nickname
The Big Apple, New York City. Image made by my dear friend and damn-good pencil artist Luiza Niechoda.

Updated: 2018-11-22.
New York City is known by many names.

The city so nice, they named it twice. Gotham. The city that never sleeps.

However, no name is more popular than “the Big Apple.”

It’s big, sure, but why not an orange or a kumquat?

Here’s why New York City is called The Big Apple.

First Known Usage of “Big Apple”

“Kansas is apt to see in New York a greedy city…. It inclines to think that the big apple gets a disproportionate share of the national sap.”

That passage comes from a 1909 book called The Wayfarer in New York, by Edward Martin.

Experts disagree if this is when the term “Big Apple” was coined, however.

The Random House Dictionary of American Slang says it was used most likely in a sense “metaphorical or perhaps proverbial, rather than a concrete example of the later slang term.”

On the other hand, the NYT notes that “capitalization is not necessary in coinage, and quotation marks only would suggest an earlier use.”

Who Popularized the “Big Apple” Phrase?

In the New York Morning Telegraph, on May 3, 1921, turf racing writer John Fitz Gerald wrote in his horseracing column:

“J. P. Smith, with Tippity Witchet and others of the L. T. Bauer string, is scheduled to start for “the big apple” to-morrow after a most prosperous Spring campaign at Bowie and Havre de Grace.”

This passage by Fitz Gerald solidified its usage as a nickname for New York City.

However, he didn’t coin it himself. While in New Orleans, he overheard stable hands saying that the greatest reward for any thoroughbred is to reach the “Big Apple,” referring to a New York racetrack.

Others followed his example later in the 1920s. There was the “Big Apple” song by Bob Emmerich, as well as the Big Apple night club which opened in Harlem in 1934. More jazz musicians used the term in the 1930s, as well.

Then, in the 1970s, NYC’s official marketing organization, New York Convention and Visitors Bureau (now NYC & Company) started to use “Big Apple” as a slogan in tourism campaigns.

What did “Big Apple” Mean Before the 1920s?

Though it’s synonymous with NYC now, it was not always the case, as the term dates back a century more, at least.

Carmen Nigro, coordinator of research services for the NY Public Library, wrote this:

“Before it became a moniker for the city, ‘big apple’ had other meanings. Throughout the nineteenth century, the term meant ‘something regarded as the most significant of its kind; an object of desire and ambition.’ To ‘bet a big apple’ was ‘to state with supreme assurance; to be absolutely confident of.'”

Gerald Cohen’s Origin of New York City’s Nickname “The Big Apple” says that “in the 19th and presumably the early 20th century, a big red apple was apparently something of special desirability.”

The Big Apple’s Other Origins

There have been dozens of other theories and legends as to how New York City got its famous moniker.

Some are adorable, some are obviously inaccurate, and others still are plain crazy:

Great Depression – One older myth says this nickname came from people selling apples on the streets during the Depression.

Apple Orchards – After the State of Washington, New York is second when in apple production, but that also has nothing to do with the name.

Slave Code – One theory says that it was a “slave code” used in the 1850s for African Americans on the Underground Railroad, similar to “Georgia Peach.” No evidence, though.

Brothel Women – One debunked story said that a woman named Evelyn was a brothel owner. New Yorkers “got into the habit of referring to their amorous adventures as “having a taste of Eve’s Apples.” Amateur etymologist Barry Popik helped unmask that myth.

Big Apple NYC Aside

One quick thing I wanted to share is Big Apple Greeter. Greeters are volunteer tour guides, and they offer visitors to New York City a chance to show them the Big Apple the way only a local can.

If you’re planning a trip to New York City and are interested in meeting a local to show you some sights for free, head over to their website.

Just be sure to schedule a Greeter 3-4 weeks before you arrive, and you must stay within the five boroughs for at least two nights to take part.

How do you like them apples?

For more on NYC, check out these posts: Why are New Yorkers rude? • Hosting a Couchsurfer in NYC • How to Get to JFKThings to Do in the BronxConey Island in the Summer

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