(Image credit: Rick Dikeman)
In doing etymological (word or term origins) research, one fact seems to become apparent above all others. This fact is that origins of word or terms are often disputed. Spoiled as we are with the internet, we must remind ourselves that past generations were not always so blessed.
Folklore, local tales, verbal data, opinions (as opposed to facts) all enter into the picture and actual and factual etymology can become foggy and difficult. These, along with those people who want their 15 minutes of fame, make correct research tough. That said, let's take a look at why and how New York City came to be referred to as "the Big Apple".
The origin of New York City's most famous nickname has been the subject of conjecture for many years. One view is that one New York gentlemen's guidebook to the "houses of ill repute" in the 19th century referred to New York as having the best "apples" (in this usage a euphemism for hookers, prostitutes) in the world. Given that New York claimed to have the most and best "houses of ill repute,” it was inevitably called "the Big Apple.” (As a sidebar, I wonder if any other single thing in this universe has as many euphemisms as "women"?)
A second view is that the name derived from a 1909 book by Edward S. Martin entitled The Wayfarer in New York, which made a reference to New York being the Big Apple and receiving more than its share of the "national sap.” However, there is no evidence to suggest that either of the above two sources had any influence on the popularity or spread of the term.
(Image credit: Richiekim)
Many people believe the name stems from a term used by jazz musicians to refer to New York, although it is thought that they did not begin the trend. That honor is believed to fall to John J. Fitz Gerald, a horse racing journalist for the New York Morning Telegraph, who in 1921 wrote an article in which he referred to New York races around "the Big Apple.”
Fitz Gerald claimed that he had overheard the term being used by some African-American stablehands in New Orleans, who were referring to every jockey's dream being to race in New York “Because there's only one Big Apple. That's New York.” The name was then popularized by jazz musicians in the 1930's because New York (Harlem, in particular) was the best place to perform and thought to be the jazz capital of the world.
In 1971, a New York advertising campaign adopted the name “The Big Apple" (using a logo featuring red apples) in an attempt to increase tourism to the city by portraying it as a bright and lively place rather than an urban netherworld rife with crime. Since then, the city has officially been known as "the Big Apple" throughout the world.
(Image credit: Americasroof)
In 1997, the corner of Fifty-Fourth Street and Broadway, where John Fitz Gerald lived for 29 years, was named "Big Apple Corner" as a tribute to the man.