Monday, 12 January 2009


The 19th century writer Washington Irving (above) was the first to apply the nickname "Gotham" to New York City, when he called it "the renowned and ancient city of Gotham" in an essay he wrote for his satiric literary magazine Salmagundi in 1807. The real origin of the name requires going back a bit further, to an English book published in 1540 under the title "The Merry Tales of the Mad Men of Gotham." It tells the tale of the antics of the townsfolk of Gotham (from the Anglo-Saxon word Got-ham, meaning goat-town) to avoid paying an unpopular new tax. When the King's Tax Inspectors arrive to collect, the villagers act like lunatics and fools. They paint green apples red, try to drown a fish in a pool of water, and attempt to capture a bird by building fences around the bush in which the bird is perched. "We should have built the fence higher," they decide when the bird had flown away.

So when Washington Irving used the term, he was putting his finger on the peculiar blend of lunacy, wiliness and bravado that characterizes New York City.

The moniker became popular once again with the Batman & Batwoman comic books, which appeared more than a century later in 1939; the title character was said to live in Gotham City, clearly recognizable as New York.

The nickname "the Big Apple" has a much more recent derivation; it was coined around 1920 by jazz musicians from New Orleans. In New Orleans slang, to play in the big apple meant to play the big-time shows. By 1920 New York City was the principle city for jazz, and so over time it became known as the Big Apple.

Sports writer John J Fitz Gerald helped to popularize the term with his racing column of the 1920's, "Around the Big Apple". ("There's only one Big Apple. That's New York," he wrote in his column in 1924.) He'd heard the name from his stable hands, who had picked it up from the jazz circuit. The nickname became official in the 1970's, when the New York Convention and Visitor's Bureau started the Big Apple publicity campaign to attract tourists to the city.

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