As my regular readers know I have a great interest in the history and origin of words so I’ve plucked a few for you this week which I hope will prove to be of interest.

The Big Apple

This name for New York City was originally horse-racing slang that made its way into the vernacular. The metaphor is that New York City is a succulent and sweet prize to be had for those who are successful in racing or any field of endeavor.

Big apple was commonly used in the late-19th century to refer to the winnings of a wager. This use appears as early as the August 1847 issue of The American Farmer:

“Try it once and we’ll bet you a big apple that you do it every year thereafter for the balance of your life”.

The term used in reference to New York City first appears in the writings of sportswriter John J. Fitz Gerald, who wrote for the New York Morning Telegraph. Fitz Gerald first used the term in a column on 3 May 1921. J. P. Smith, with Tippity Witchet and others of the L. T. Bauer string, is scheduled to start for “the big apple” to-morrow after a most prosperous Spring campaign at Bowie and Havre de Grace.The jump from wagering in general to horse racing in particular is unsurprising. Fitz Gerald never claimed to have coined the Big Apple. Instead, he consistently gave the credit to an African-American stable hand he overheard in New Orleans in January 1920. Fitz Gerald first told the tale in an 18 February 1924 column:

The Big Apple represented 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.

Two dusky stable hands were leading a pair of thoroughbred 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 headin’ for The Big Apple,” proudly replied the other.

“Well, you’d better fatten up them skinners or all you’ll get from the apple will be the core,” was the quick rejoinder.

By the late 1920s, the term had been adopted by New Yorkers in general and used to refer to the city as a whole, not just the New York racing circuit. A tourism advertising campaign in the 1970s that used the term as a theme reinvigorated usage and brought the name to the attention of millions who had not otherwise heard it.


Bedlam is a Middle English form of Bethlehem, referring to the Judean city traditionally reckoned as the birthplace of Jesus Christ.

The sense meaning madness, uproar, or confusion comes from the Hospital of Saint Mary of Bethlehem in London. The hospital was founded as a priory in 1247 and is first mentioned as a hospital in 1330. By 1402 it was known for housing lunatics.

In 1547 the hospital was formally incorporated as a royal foundation for the care of the insane. The modern sense of a madhouse or place of confusion and uproar comes from association with this hospital and dates to the early 16th century.

The Blues

The adjective blue has been associated with despondency and sadness since the 16th century. The noun the blues has been with us since 1741, when first used by English actor David Garrick in a letter expressing his sadness. The blues is a shortening of blue devils, demons popularly thought to cause depression and sadness. Blue devils have been around since at least 1616, from Times’ Whistle, a collection of satirical poems from that year. The name of the musical style has been around since 1912, taking its name from the mournful and haunting nature of the lyrics. Some sources say the style takes its name from the blue notes that it uses, blue notes being a minor interval in place of a major, an off-pitch note. But the opposite is true. Blue notes get their name from the blues, not the other way around. Blue note is attested to in 1919.


Anglo-Saxon is the adjective given to the Germanic tribes that migrated to and conquered Britain in the 5th century. Later it took on the meaning of referring to England and the English people as a whole. The name comes from two of the tribes that made this migration.

The Angles are thought to be from an area of Holstein, in what is now northern Germany, known as the Angul, so-called because of its shape. The word comes from a common Germanic root meaning a hook or other bent object. The Angles bequeathed their name to England and the English language. By the way the term WASPS came from the name White Anglo Saxon Protestants.


Most people know that America is named after Amerigo Vespucci, but few know why. Two myths about Vespucci are common. The first is that Vespucci was a fraud who never travelled to the New World. The second is that he was the first European to set foot on mainland America. Both are untrue. Vespucci made two trips to the New World as a ship’s navigator, the first in 1499. Then in 1503 and 1504 he published two letters he had written to Lorenzo de Medici about his voyages. In the letters he put forward the idea that what Columbus had discovered was not in fact a new route to Asia, but rather a new continent. Vespucci also published the first letter under the title Novus Mundus, or New World, thereby coining that phrase. The letters were a media hit (but whether their popularity was because of his innovative navigational theories or his description of the sex lives of American Indians is a question), and Vespucci became a celebrity. More of the Big Apple pie another time.

Go Seachtain Eile, Hasta!