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. Now a Popeye's fast food restaurant on Google Maps.

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Entry from July 05, 2004
Damon Runyon (who never used “Big Apple")
It's not difficult to see how this would occur. Writer Damon Runyon was noted for his underworld slang. He had a character called "Apple Annie" in one of his stories. In the musical Guys and Dolls, one character famously sings, "We got the horse right here."

The only problem is in finding "Big Apple" citations. Runyon never called New York City "the Big Apple."

The first recorded citation of this theory is in the New York Times, March 27, 1975, pg. 65: "Back in the nineteen-twenties, Damon Runyon popularized the term 'Big Apple' as the ultimate description of New York—the city that was the big time in all respects."

In the New York Times of May 19, 1975, "The Big Apple In a Big Pickle," William Safire wrote: "We call New York 'The Big Apple," a Runyonesque phrase lifted from racetrack lingo, meaning 'the big time,' where the high purses could be won. In the early thirties, the phrase was applied to Harlem by jazz buffs, and a nightclub called 'The Big Apple' flourished; a frenetic dance by that name popularized the term nationally. An apple is shaped like the world, and by synecdoche, the Big Apple has come to stand for the place where opportunities—and problems—converge. If you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere." (Note: This is before the song "New York, New York" popularized that last phrase—B.P.)

The was a New York Times obituary of December 6, 1995, "Charles Gillett, 80, the Creator Of the 'Big Apple' Ad Campaign: "He was also involved in negotiations to bring the Democratic National Convention to Madison Square Garden in 1976, the first national political convention held in New York since 1924. But perhaps his greatest success came with turning the term 'Big Apple' into a tourist draw. A jazz fan, he remembered that musicians in the 1920's and 30's had an expression for playing the big time after gigs in one-horse towns: 'There are many apples on the tree, but when you pick New York City, you pick the Big Apple.' Damon Runyon had popularized the term in the 1920's."

I immediately wrote a letter to the editor and to the writer of the article. How could they re-state this 20-year old myth on his obituary? Had the Times no knowledge of Gerald Cohen's monograph, published four years earlier? Did no one have a copy of the Encyclopedia of New York City? Gillett had praised my work in print in the New York Post, as recently as October 1995. Did the Times not know about my efforts for "Big Apple Boulevard" on Gillett's behalf?

There was no response and no correction. When the Times had a special address to correct past errors (following 2003's Jason Blair incidents), I mentioned this. No one responded. When a reader representative position was established early in 2004, I mentioned this again. The reader representative said he wouldn't deal with past errors. The Times and William Safire no longer believe that Damon Runyon is responsible for "the Big Apple," but it remains here, never corrected, electronically searchable, on the obituary of a person who can't defend himself.
Posted by Barry Popik
1970s-present: False Etymologies • (0) Comments • Monday, July 05, 2004 • Permalink