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March 24, 2002 - 'Big Apple,' 'Kangaroo Court' - 2002-03-22

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on Wordmaster -- we explore the origins of two terms that listeners have recently asked us about: "Big Apple" and "kangaroo court."

RS: English teacher Dianne Gray writes from Moscow: "Last week at the English Club in which I work one of the attendees asked me why New York City is called 'The Big Apple.' I probably should know as I am an American, but I really don't know. Is there someone there who can tell us?"

AA: Yes, there is. That someone is a New Yorker named Barry Popik [PAH-pik]. He is a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary -- a word hunter. In stalking the "Big Apple," he started off from clues found by Gerald Cohen, a professor at the University of Missouri. The trail led to a newspaper writer who covered horse racing in New York in the 1920s. His name: John J. Fitz Gerald.

POPIK: "At the beginning of the racing season, Fitz Gerald would write: 'Racing returns to the Big Apple.' We knew he used 'Big Apple' about six times, at least -- that's what Gerald Cohen found -- and then I said, wait a minute, did Fitz Gerald coin the term, did he not coin the term? And then I went through every single Fitz Gerald column for over a dozen years, and he wrote every single day. It was very labor intensive. He admitted twice that the Big Apple was his, that he heard it from an African American stable hand in New Orleans at the Fairgrounds Racetrack in about 1920, and that it referred to the big time in horse racing."

RS: Barry Popik reads an excerpt from one of those columns:

POPIK: "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." And then he explains it in the second paragraph. He said, "Two dusky stable hands" -- 'dusky' was African American -- "were leading a pair of thoroughbreds around the cooling rings of adjoining stables at the fairgrounds in New Orleans and engaging in desultory conversation. "Where are you all going from here," queried one. "We're heading for the big apple," proudly replied the other.'"

RS: It's possible that the choice of fruit in this metaphor was influenced by the fact that apples are a treat for horses.

AA: In any case, Barry Popik says that pretty soon the term "big apple" started to take on other meanings. In 1927, the radio commentator Walter Winchell said Broadway -- the street with many famous New York theaters -- was the big apple.

POPIK: "Then in 1928 the New York Times mentioned the Big Apple and it referred to movies -- the movie people said New York is the Big Apple. Then in the 1930s the jazz musicians picked it up." And then in 1937 it really became a big hit because it became a big song-and-dance."

MUSIC: "The Big Apple"/Tommy Dorsey's Clambake Seven

... Everybody's learning how to do the Big Apple. (Chorus: "The Big Apple.") And it isn't very hard to do the Big Apple. ...

POPIK: "And then it faded away, because no one could dance the Big Apple dance. It required a lot of people, it was like the Lindy Hop, it was very strenuous, and there was a war, there was World War Two, and people kind of forgot about the Big Apple a little bit."

AA: Until the early nineteen-seventies, when the president of the New York Convention and Visitors Bureau was looking for ways to polish the city's rough image.

RS: He was looking for a "clean, wholesome symbol," Barry Popik says, and chose a shiny red apple.

AA: Now fast-forward to the nineteen-nineties. Armed with his findings, Barry Popik set out to get the city to honor sportswriter John J. Fitz Gerald and the unknown African American stable hand who used the term "big apple."

POPIK: "I didn't want to keep it secret, I wanted to tell New Yorkers. So I wrote away to all the newspapers, and no one believed me."

RS: It took about five years, but the city finally established a "Big Apple Corner." It's at West 54th Street and Broadway, where John J. Fitz Gerald lived for thirty years.

AA: Juhani [you-HA-nee] Vasankari from Helsinki, Finland, writes to us about another matter. He is curious about the origins of the expression “kangaroo court,” which he heard on VOA’s Encounter program. Barry Popik explains.

POPIK: "It's defined as unauthorized, irregularly conducted, something that's on the frontiers of establishment of law. Sometimes it's called a mock court."

RS: Barry Popik says "kangaroo court" comes not from Australia, home of kangaroos, but from Texas in the eighteen-hundreds:

POPIK: "Supposedly people were bound up, and all they could do was jump and down in the court. There are various explanations like that, but I think the alliteration is probably the good one."

AA: -- that is, the allure of having two words begin with the same sound, like "kangaroo court."

RS: When he's not busy hunting words, Barry Popik is himself a judge, in New York City's Parking Violations Bureau, where he assures us he gives everyone a fair hearing.

AA: We'd like to hear from you! If you're on the Internet, visit our new Web site -- it's With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.