A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Why can't Cecil get his facts straight about the origin of "Big Apple" and mention John J. Fitz Gerald? And what about "Windy City"?

September 17, 1999

Dear Cecil:

Why can't Cecil get his facts straight about the origin of the nickname "Big Apple" and mention John J. Fitz Gerald? My work is on the Web page of the Museum of the City of New York, and I dedicated "Big Apple Corner" at Broadway and W. 54th Street. Why can't Cecil mention this?

Cecil replies:

Folks, meet Barry Popik. A man with a mission.

In a 1977 column about the origin of "Big Apple" I wrote, "Of the many theories advanced, the most reasonable seems to be that the phrase originated in showbiz circles. 'There are many apples on the tree,' an old saying supposedly runs, 'but only one Big Apple.' So vaudevillians, jazzmen, and other wormy entertainment types dubbed New York, the most important performing venue of them all, the Big Apple." Not the world's most compelling answer, but pretty much the consensus among etymologists at the time.

Enter Barry Popik. By day a NYC parking-ticket judge, by night Popik was an indefatigable word sleuth. In the early 90s he chanced to meet fellow word maven Gerald Cohen at a New York public library. Cohen, a professor at the University of Missouri, mentioned that one early user of the term "Big Apple" was John J. Fitz Gerald, a horse-racing writer for the New York Morning Telegraph. Popik decided to find out whether Fitz Gerald had originated the famous phrase. Holing up at the library during his off-hours, he paged (reeled, actually) through just about every issue of the Telegraph from 1919 to 1929. He found that Fitz Gerald had first used the phrase in 1921 and mentioned it frequently thereafter. The most telling citation was from the first appearance of a column called "Around the Big Apple with John J. Fitz Gerald," which appeared in the Telegraph on February 18, 1924:

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.

Fitz Gerald said he'd first heard the phrase on a trip to New Orleans to see one Jake Byers:

Two dusky stable hands were leading a pair of thoroughbreds around the "cooling rings" of adjoining stables at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans and engaging in desultory conversation. "Where y'all goin' from here?" queried one.

"From here we're headed for the Big Apple," proudly replied the other.

"Well, you'd better fatten up them skinners or all you'll get from the apple is the core," was the quick rejoinder.

Popik found a reference to J.J. Fitz Gerald's having sold a horse to J. Byers on January 15, 1920, leading him to conclude that "Big Apple" had first come to the writer's notice on January 13 or 14.

A bravura performance, you'll agree. Popik proudly notified various New York heavyweights (Mayor Dinkins, the New York Times), figuring that from the standpoint of civic excitement this probably ranked up there with V-J Day or the '69 Mets. Uh-uh. It took five years of nagging to arrange the designation of "Big Apple Corner," the location of Fitz Gerald's last residence. When Popik invited the media to the official proclamation in 1997, he sadly reports, "No one showed up."

Not everyone accepts Popik's explanation as the final word even now. By his own account, John J. Fitz Gerald didn't invent the nickname, he merely popularized it. In The City in Slang: New York Life and Popular Speech (1993), Irving Lewis Allen quotes a 1909 comment by one Martin Wayfarer: "New York [was] merely one of the fruits of that great tree whose roots go down in the Mississippi Valley, and whose branches spread from one ocean to the other....[But] the big apple [New York] gets a disproportionate share of the national sap." A nonce usage, Popik says; there's no evidence "Big Apple" was in common use before 1920. Then again, those stable hands knew what it meant. Be that as it may, Popik has helped advance human knowledge, and Cecil is happy to give credit where it's due. Maybe next week we'll have room for his exposé on the origin of "Windy City."

ANOTHER BITE FROM THE APPLE

Back to Barry Popik. Having gotten Big Apple squared away, Barry turned his attention to Chicago's nickname, the Windy City. The average mope believes Chicago was so dubbed because it's windy, meteorologically speaking. The more sophisticated set (including, till recently, your columnist) thinks the term originated in a comment by Charles Dana, editor of the New York Sun in the 1890s. Annoyed by the vocal (and ultimately successful) efforts of Chicago civic leaders to land the world's fair celebrating Columbus's discovery of America, Dana urged his readers to ignore "the nonsensical claims of that windy city"--windy meaning excessively talkative.

But that may not be the true explanation either. Scouring the magazines and newspapers of the day, Popik found that the nickname commonly used for Chicago switched from the Garden City to the Windy City in 1886, several years before Dana's comment. The earliest citation was from the Louisville Courier-Journal in early January, 1886, when it was used in reference to the wind off Lake Michigan. In other words, the average mope was right all along! However, when Popik attempted to notify former Chicagoan but soon-to-be New Yorker Hillary Rodham Clinton of his findings, she blew him off with a form letter--and this from a woman facing a campaign for the Senate. Come on, Hill, quit worrying about the Puerto Ricans and pay attention here. You want to lose the etymologist vote?

LATE NEWS

Barry has sent me a still earlier cite from the Sept. 19, 1885 Cleveland Gazette, in which one finds the headline "FROM THE WINDY CITY" over a story datelined Chicago. "We can now say that 'Windy City' was born in 1885 and was popularized in 1886," he writes. However, the fact that the term appears without further explanation over a story appearing in Cleveland suggests the term had already achieved regional notoriety by 1885 and originated sometime previously. Clearly the last word on this subject has not yet been written. We await further word from Barry.

LATER NEWS

Barry now (5/26/2003) reports a cite from the Sept. 11, 1882 Cincinnati Enquirer (page 1, column 2): "CHICAGO'S RECORD. Crimes of a Day in the Windy City." A multi-deck headline over a report of a baseball game from the Oct. 7, 1882 issue of the same paper includes the line, "We Will Try It Again To-day, and Will Perhaps be Generous to the Chaps From the Windy City--Perhaps Not."  Barry reports sadly that Chicago institutions such as the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Public Library continue to give credence to the discredited story that editor Charles Dana coined the phrase in the 1890s (or 1889, in one version).

Barry, don't sweat it. You've persuaded the only Chicago institution that counts.

LATER AND COUNTING

Barry's still at it. As of June 2003 he was holed up in the newspaper room at the Library of Congress looking for "Windy City" references and had discovered a still earlier one. In the Cincinnati Enquirer for July 17, 1880, pg. 4, col. 5, under the headline "Off for Chicago," he finds the following report: "Maud S and Dream were shipped to Chicago last night in a special car, the property of W. H. Vanderbilt. Both nags were in apple-pie condition, and will give a good account of themselves in the Windy City."

FROM HERE ON OUT I'M JUST MAKING A LIST

Latest "Windy City" finds from Barry P.: "CHICAGO LETTER--Gossip and Impressions of the Windy City" (headline), Cincinnati Enquirer, pg. 5, col. 2, Feb. 12, 1877. "THAT WINDY CITY. Some of the Freaks of the Last Chicago Tornado" (headline), Cincinnati Enquirer, pg. 2, col. 4, May 9, 1876.

Barry has discovered that on two occasions in April, 1876 the Cincinnati Enquirer referred to Chicago as the Garden City, suggesting that the May, 1876 reference to the Windy City was an early usage and that the term had not yet become the standard epithet for the city.

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