Brain Pickings

Why New York City Is Known as “The Big Apple”

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A brief history of brilliant branding.

How come New York City is nicknamed “The Big Apple”? That’s precisely what ten-year-old Ellen wonders in Does My Goldfish Know Who I Am? (public library) — that magnificent compendium of big thinkers’ answers to little kids’ questions about how life works, also among the best children’s books and the best science books of 2013. Author Philip Gooden, masterful writer about language and history, explains:

There’s an old American expression “to bet a big apple” and it means to be very certain of what you’re talking about. Then about a hundred years ago the “big apple” started to be applied to horse racing in New York, perhaps because it was the most important center for horse races or because of the value of the prizes. From there the expression grew even wider until it came to describe the city itself, especially during an age when it was one of the most exciting, fast-moving and glamorous places on Earth.

After a time, advertisers started using the words and even the image of a large, glossy, unblemished apple because they realized it was a good way to encourage people to visit the city. It’s true too: New York is like the biggest apple in the world, the shiny object that everybody wants a slice of.

Take a virtual slice of this shiny apple with a look at the city’s people, cats, dogs, buildings, diaries, love letters, and farewells.

Photograph from Berenice Abbott's 'Changing New York' series, 1935-1939. Click image for more.

Does My Goldfish Know Who I Am? is absolutely wonderful in its entirety. Sample its goodness with some of the questions and answers here, including my response to a nine-year-old girl, who wanted to know why we have books.

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