Why is New York Called the Big Apple?

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

There are several different theories on how New York City earned the nickname "The Big Apple," each with a certain amount of truth to them. It appears that city officials did not officially adopt the moniker until 1971, although many residents and visitors had been using the nickname since the 1920s. The 1971 campaign to popularize New York City as the Big Apple included volunteers handing out real apples to passing tourists. Through this promotion, the city hoped to generate a more positive perception of New York City, and all it had to offer as one of the world's largest cities.

A Red Delicious apple.
A Red Delicious apple.

The first reference to New York City as by this name is believed to have appeared in 1909. A man named Martin Wayfarer allegedly criticized the disproportional amount of the nation's money New York City received annually. He compared the country's economy to a tree with many roots, but the "big apple" (New York City) received the bulk of the "sap." It's very possible that residents of New York City may have embraced that critical reference as a source of civic pride. Living in the city meant enjoying the benefits of a robust economy.

New York City might have gotten its nickname from a criticism.
New York City might have gotten its nickname from a criticism.

There is also a very popular theory involving a New York sportswriter named John J. Fitzgerald, who wrote primarily about horse racing during the 1920s. It is believed that horse races held in tracks surrounding New York City were called apples, perhaps as a reference to the prizes awarded to the winners. Fitzgerald took a trip to a stable in New Orleans in 1920, ostensibly to sell one of his own horses. Fitzgerald spoke with several jockeys while he was there, and they all referred to the New York City horse racing scene as the "Big Apple". Fitzgerald later named his regular newspaper column "Notes from Around the Big Apple," most likely inspired by the words of the jockeys from New Orleans.

New York City is one of the world's largest cities.
New York City is one of the world's largest cities.

Another popular but largely unsubstantiated theory centers around the world of jazz music. Musicians during the Jazz Age were said to call paying gigs "apples", for reasons known only to themselves. By the 1920s, New York City had established itself as one of the premiere cities for jazz music, so it became the destination of many working jazz musicians. The ultimate gig for a musician was to play the "Big Apple," meaning a nightclub in New York City. New York City became a destination for other entertainers as well, which could explain why the nickname became so popular.

New York City is divided into five burroughs.
New York City is divided into five burroughs.
Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular wiseGEEK contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

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Discussion Comments

anon182883

Chicago is not called the "Windy City" because of being climatically windy, as many people believe. The term "windy" in reference to Chicago, actually grew from Chicagoans being very verbose, very talkative, hence, very "windy."

ronburg44

Before New York was called New York, it was known as New Amsterdam. That is because of the Dutch that had settled in the area before the United States formed as a Union.

hyrax53

I always wondered why cities got their strange nicknames. While some - Chicago as the "windy city", or Denver as the "mile high" city - seem obvious because of climate or geography, New York City at first glance has absolutely nothing to do with apples. This makes me curious to know what they might have called the city before the "Big Apple" name became popular.

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