Why Is New York Called the Big Apple? The Surprising Origins of the Nickname
New York City is has many nicknames, some of which are the Big Apple, City that Never Sleeps, Crossroads of the World (otherwise known as Times Square), Gotham, Concrete Jungle and Empire City. As a New Yorker, my favorite is The Big Apple, which is clearly evident for the logo I use for Gotta Love New York! But why is New York called the Big Apple, and how did this name become synonymous with NYC?
The credit for popularizing the Big Apple as a name for New York City goes to John J. Fitz Gerald, a sports writer for the New York Morning Telegraph, who started using it in his column about horseracing called Around the Big Apple. It was also used by jazz musicians to refer to NYC, though there is a debate about w-hether or not they used it before or after John J. Fitz Gerald. Regardless, it then found its way into popular culture, and has been used even more extensively as years went on.
Why is New York City Called the Big Apple?
While there are many theories and stories regarding the origins of the Big Apple, recent research has discovered that it was first used by African American stable hands in New Orleans the early 20th century, who referred to New York City as the “Big Apple” based on the prizes – or big apples – to be won in horse races in New York. This was picked up and popularized by a sports writer named John J. Fitz Gerald, who used it in a column that he called Around the Big Apple to cover horse racing in the New York Morning Telegraph in the 1920s. On February 18, 1924 he wrote – “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 Big Apple concurrently – or maybe before or after – was used by jazz musicians, that had a saying “There are many apples on the tree, but only one Big Apple.” In 1934, there was a Big Apple Nightclub that opened in Harlem, and in 1939 there was a film short called the Big Apple that featured Herbert “Whitey” White’s Lindy Hoppers. Here is a priceless video of them performing the Big Apple –
During this time, Cab Calloway published a book of jazz slang called A Hepster’s Dictionary, in which he defined “Apple” as New York City: “Apple (n) the big town, the main stem, Harlem.” You can actually watch him perform Mr Hepster’s Dictionary in this delightful video –
This nickname started to spread, and as Malcolm X wrote in his autobiography about arriving in New York City at age 16 in 1941: “For a long time I’d wanted to visit New York City. Since I had been in Roxbury (Massachusetts), I had heard a lot about the Big Apple, as it was called by the well-traveled musicians, merchant mariners, salesmen, chauffeurs for white families, and various kinds of hustlers I ran into.”
In the 1970s, during a challenging period for NYC, the city ran a campaign to promote New York City as the Big Apple, cementing its nickname for the future. Today, the nickname is widely recognized and used by locals and tourists alike.
The Big Apple Corner
New York has a history of giving honorary street names to pay tribute to New Yorkers. In recognition of Fitz Gerald popularizing the name the Big Apple, New York City named the southwest corner of 54th and Broadway, where Fitz Gerald lived for 30 years, “Big Apple Corner” in 1997. I have walked by this corner often hoping to get a picture of this sign, which is no longer there, though the honorary street name index still lists it as the Big Apple Corner.
The Big Apple in Popular Culture
The Big Apple has found widespread acceptance and use in popular culture ranging from sports to even a circus. Here are some popular Big Apple references around us today.
Lego Big Apple
The flagship Lego store on Fifth Avenue features a Lego apple in their window as a nod to the Big Apple. It is placed right next to a Lego yellow taxi and Lego skylines of NYC.
Here is a closer look at the Lego Big Apple –
Mets Home Run Apple
The Mets, a New York based baseball team, use the Big Apple as a part of their team branding. It is featured all over their merchandize and souvenirs.
The Mets even have a huge 18 ft by 16 ft motorized apple at Citi Field which rises every time they hit a home run.
Big Apple Circus
Big Apple Circus is a New York based circus which is very involved with community programs, as well as for their humane treatment of animals
Big Apple Art
When you are in New York, you keep bumping into the Big Apple in many places. For instance, there is a Big Apple at the newly opened Terminal B at LaGuardia airport.
There’s a really fun installation on Sixth Avenue which makes for great pictures with Radio City in the background.
And here is a really fun public art installation that actually has a bench on the inside for people to sit on. The picture below is from Lincoln Center, and I have seen this at Hudson Yards in the past as well –
The Big Apple has become a part of New York City’s cultural identity, and is recognized around the world as a symbol of the Manhattan and New York City. For me, the Big Apple is a nickname for a place that I am privileged to call home.