Which came first, the apple or the nickname?

It turns out that apples and the Empire State are indeed closely connected, though interestingly, the “Big Apple” nickname came first.


Why is New York known as the Empire State? A reader wrote in with an intriguing speculation: Might the nickname be a reference not to wealth and power, but to a humble fruit? There is a variety of apple called “Empire,” after all, and New York City is often called “the Big Apple.”  

It turns out that apples and the Empire State are indeed closely connected, though, unfortunately for our hypothesis, the state nickname came first. 

“Empire” may sound like a venerable variety, but it was actually developed in the 1940s by pomologists – scientists who study fruit growth – at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. 

This intensely red apple was an immediate hit – “for children in particular it shouts out ‘eat me,’” according to enthusiast Richard Borrie – and it now makes up 60% of apples grown in New York state. The fruit was thus named after the state, and not vice versa. 

New York became the Empire State much earlier, around the beginning of the 19th century. George Washington may have gotten the ball rolling when he called it “the seat of the Empire” in a flattering letter to its governor in 1785, but the nickname probably caught on for a more prosaic reason: New Yorkers were proud of their state’s wealth and influence. As (completely unbiased) New Yorker and historian Benson Lossing explained in 1888, his home was “imperial in its various aspects of population, wealth, the products of its industries ... and its institutions of learning and benevolence.”

The phrase “big apple” seems to have made its first appearance in Victorian gambling slang.

Newspapers of the period are full of lines like this one: “We wager a big apple that [a certain candidate wins an election]” or “he would bet a big red apple to a peanut [that few people would attend a meeting].” It was a jocular way to make predictions about the future. You’d wager an apple when you weren’t really betting, or when you weren’t serious enough to put down bigger stakes.

Journalist John FitzGerald first linked gambling and large pomes, or fleshy fruits, to New York City in the 1920s. According to his horse-racing column, the New York circuit was where jockeys and horse owners could find the “big apples,” here used unironically to mean the largest prizes and the most prestige. To FitzGerald, the whole New York circuit was the Big Apple: “The dream of every lad that ever threw a leg over a thoroughbred and the goal of all horsemen. There’s only one Big Apple. That’s New York.” The nickname caught on quickly, and within a few years, the city was referred to as “the Big Apple” far beyond racing circles.

So start spreading the news – the apple came second.

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