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 Popeyes fast food restaurant on Google Maps.

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Entry from July 12, 2004
Manzana Principal (suggested in 1966)
It is sometimes claimed that "Big Apple" comes from the Spanish, "manzana principal," the "apple" or block of a city. I found the first such "manzana" citation in English:

Bradshaw's Illustrated Hand-book
Spain and Portugal
by Dr. Charnock
London: W. J. Adams
Pg. 87: The word manzana, so frequently used at Valencia, signifies "an assemblage of houses bounded on every side by a street."

There are no contemporary historical citations for this "manzana principal" theory, first proposed in 1966:

January 1966, Record Research, pg. 7:
If anyone wanted to take JAZZ LEXIKON (sic) apart, he could do a fair job using only the legends on phonograph records as the source for words and phrases used in specific connotation by jazz and bluesmen.

I can see why Gold might prefer to leave MAINSTEM to a theatrical lexicographer, despite its being a jazz title; and why he might assign MAINLINER to a junky monographer. But I would be grateful to him if he would confirm or deny my suspicion that BIG APPLE is a transliteration of the older Mexican idiom "manzana principal" for the main square of the town or the downtown area.

John Ciardi, a word researcher, accepted this "manzana" theory and wrote about it in a letter to the New York Times in the 1970s. It had then been thought that "Big Apple" came from jazz, and jazz comes from New Orleans, and New Orleans is close to Mexico. When it was later discovered (by me) that "the Big Apple" really does come from New Orleans, the New Orleans "manzana principal" theory gets added on. Jazz is again credited, even though "the Big Apple" did not appear in the jazz world before the 1930s.

I have read many 1920s New York Morning Telegraph racing reports from Agua Caliente (Tijuana, Mexico), where "Big Apple" is mentioned. "Manzana" is never mentioned.

Not a single relevant "manzana" citation turns up in our millions of digitized newspaper database pages. Not one! You can count the citations for "manzana principal" on the fingers of one hand that can be found in some fifty million digitized pages.

New Orleans is a French town, not a Spanish one. The African American stablehands most likely did not speak Spanish. John J. Fitz Gerald most likely did not speak Spanish. The readers of his column most likely did not speak Spanish.

This theory has no historical basis.
Posted by Barry Popik
New York CityThe Big Apple1970s-present: False Etymologies • Monday, July 12, 2004 • Permalink