A plaque remaining from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem.

Above, a 1934 plaque from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem. Discarded as trash in 2006.

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Entry from October 28, 2012
Slave Codes (1850s)

A new explanation for the “Big Apple,” first proposed in the 2000s, claims that the nickname arose from pre-Civil War slave codes used in the underground railroad (a network of secret routes and safe houses used by 19th-century black slaves in the United States to escape to free states).

Yahoo! Answers
Why is New York called the Big Apple?
6 years ago
(...)
Patrick
It’s a old code word from the days of slavery, same as georgia peach. Thats what i was told on the Circle line which is a boat tour that circles NYC.
6 years ago

The BIG APPLES of New York:
The story of how New York State became THE BIG APPLE

By A. L. DuBois
(Unpublished manuscript in 2012—ed.)
Pg. 37:
Chapter 4
The Mystery of “The Big Apple”
Pg. 41:
The runaway slaves and displaced former slaves coming from the South saw in New York State first of all the better life that the emancipated New York slaves had, including their many social freedoms and opportunities never experienced before, which included the readily available work in the apple industry. As a result the short (Pg. 43—ed.) handed term developed among many mostly illiterate slaves came up with the slang expression “The Big Apple” that very early on was used by them as code, to secretly describe New York when they were in the south, secretly discussing among themselves escape plans to New York.


There are many reasons why the “slave code” explanation must be regarded as a false etymology:

1. There is no documentary evidence of “apple” or “big apple” ever being used as a slave code in the Underground Railroad.
An extremely large amount of material (books, newspapers, magazines, songs) is now computer-searchable and there is not one piece of documentary evidence that “apple” or “big apple” was ever used as a slave code in the Underground Railroad. The supposed slave codes were “secret,” of course, but over 100,000 people must have been in on the “secret” and there was no reason to keep it secret after the Civil War. The lack of a single piece of evidence anywhere for such a “secret code” should end this theory immediately.

ProQuest Historical Newspapers—Black Newspapers offers several digitally searchable black newspapers. Accessible Archives has an African American Newspapers collection published during the 1840s-1850s period of the underground railroad. GenealogyBank.com has advertised its large collection of “African American Newspapers 1827-1999.” It is simply not possible that a slave code of “big apple” existed and was never mentioned anywhere at any time.

Also, the first Georgia peaches were shipped to the New York market between 1858 and 1860. Georgia was not known as the “Peach State” until after the Civil War --when “secret slave codes” were no longer needed.

A “secret slave quilt code” has also been proposed and has been exposed as a modern fraud.

2. The adjective “big” was popularized in the early 1900s and was seldom used in the 1850s.
“Big” became popularized in the early 1900s when vaudeville named certain theaters as “big time” or “small time.” “Big” most likely would not have been used in the 1850s. “Big town” would not have been used at this time.

From the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, A-G (1994):

. big town (especially New York City)—1902
. big time (vaudeville)—1910
. big house—1913
. big cheese—1914
. big-league—1919

3. Billy Tucker called Los Angeles—not New York and not a city on the Underground Railroad—the “Big Apple” in 1920.
Ragtime Billy Tucker wrote a column for the Chicago (IL) Defender. From May 15, 1920:

Dear Pal, Tony: No, Ragtime Billy Tucker hasn’t dropped completely out of existence, but is still in the “Big Apple,” Los Angeles.
(...)
-- Your old pal, Ragtime Billy Tucker.


Los Angeles is not known for growing apples and was not a stop on the Underground Railroad. In September 1922, Tucker wrote “‘The big apple’ (New York),” referring to New York City. Billy Tucker’s citations appear to have no connection whatsoever to a secret slave code of “big apple” for New York State.

4. “Big Apple” has always referred to New York City, not New York State.
“Big Apple” has always referred to New York City, especially its big-money racetracks. There are racetracks elsewhere in New York State (Saratoga, for example), but “Big Apple” was never used to describe Saratoga racing.

As cited above, “Ragtime Billy Tucker” applied “Big Apple” to cities, not to a state.  The New York (NY) Times article “Slang of Film Men,” March 11, 1928, defined “The big apple, New York City.” A racketeer slang article in the Philadelphia (PA) Evening Bulletin, October 5, 1928, defined “‘the Big Apple,’ New York City.”

5. New York State’s apple growers did not promote the state as the “Big Apple.”
The apple growers of New York State never specifically promoted its “Big (Red) Apples.” Many parts of the United States specifically promoted themselves as a “Land of the Big (Red) Apple” from the 1890s to the 1920s, but New York State wasn’t one of them. Most frequent users of this moniker were Missouri, Washington and British Columbia.

October is National Apple Month, but this began in 1904 as National Apple Week. New York State’s apple growers celebrated National Apple Week in the 1920s (as New York City was being called the ‘Big Apple"), but “Big Apple” was not mentioned in any of the promotions.

SUMMARY
‘Apple” or “big apple” could have been used in secret slave codes to identify New York (state or city), but there is a complete lack of any documentary evidence to support this theory.

Posted by Barry Popik
New York CityThe Big Apple1970s-present: False Etymologies • Sunday, October 28, 2012 • Permalink