A plaque remaining from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem.

Above, a 1934 plaque from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem. Discarded as trash in 2006. Now a Popeyes fast food restaurant on Google Maps.

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Entry from July 12, 2004
Manzana Principal (suggested in 1966)
It is sometimes claimed that "Big Apple" comes from the Spanish, "manzana principal," the "apple" or block of a city. "The word manzana, so frequently used at Valencia, signifies 'an assemblage of houses bounded on every side by a street'" was printed in Bradshaw's Illustrated Hand-book -- Spain and Portugal (1870) by Dr. Charnock.

"But I would be grateful to him if he would confirm or deny my suspicion that BIG APPLE is a transliteration of the older Mexican idiom 'manzana principal' for the main square of the town or the downtown area" was printed in Record Research in January 1966.

John Ciardi, a word researcher, accepted the "manzana" theory and wrote about it in a letter to the New York Times on July 19, 1978. It had then been thought that "Big Apple" came from jazz, and jazz comes from New Orleans, and New Orleans is close to Mexico (where Spanish is spoken). When it was later discovered (by me) that "the Big Apple" really does come from New Orleans, the New Orleans "manzana principal" theory sometimes gets added on. Jazz is again credited, even though "the Big Apple" did not appear in the jazz world before the 1930s.

I have read many 1920s New York Morning Telegraph racing reports from Agua Caliente (Tijuana, Mexico), where "Big Apple" is mentioned. "Manzana" is never mentioned.

Not a single relevant "manzana"/"Big Apple" citation turns up in millions of digitized newspaper database pages. Not one!

New Orleans is mostly a French town, not a Spanish one. The African American stablehands who used "Big Apple" in 1920 most likely did not speak Spanish. New York Morning Telegraph track writer John J. Fitz Gerald most likely did not speak Spanish. The readers of his column most likely did not speak Spanish.

This "manzana principal" theory for the origin of "Big Apple" as New York City's nickname has no historical basis.

La Gran Manzana ("The Big Apple" in English) is a merengue band that was named in 1982 in honor of New York City, where the band members lived at the time.


Bradshaw's Illustrated Hand-book
Spain and Portugal
By Dr. Charnock
London: W. J. Adams
1870
Pg. 87: The word manzana, so frequently used at Valencia, signifies "an assemblage of houses bounded on every side by a street."

January 1966, Record Research, pg. 7:
BEYOND THE IMPRESSION
ETYMOLOGY
REPORTED BY JOHN STEINER
(...)
If anyone wanted to take JAZZ LEXIKON (sic) apart, he could do a fair job using only the legends on phonograph records as the source for words and phrases used in specific connotation by jazz and bluesmen.

I can see why Gold might prefer to leave MAINSTEM to a theatrical lexicographer, despite its being a jazz title; and why he might assign MAINLINER to a junky monographer. But I would be grateful to him if he would confirm or deny my suspicion that BIG APPLE is a transliteration of the older Mexican idiom "manzana principal" for the main square of the town or the downtown area.

19 July 1978, New York (NY) Times, "Letters," pg. C13, col. 1:
TO THE LIVING SECTION:

Your account of the origin of the Big Apple stops short of the gist of it.

It was originally Spanish "manzana principal." The Spanish dictionaries used in school render "manzana" as apple, but its root sense is "a tract of land." and in common usage it means "a city block." A "manzana principal" is, therefore, a main block of a city's downtown area, the main stem, where the action is, the big time.

Translated as Big Apple by New Orleans jazzmen around 1900 with the sense "the big time," the idiom passed into show biz, from which Charles Gillett of the New York Convention and Visitors Bureau picked it up and began in 1970 to promote it as an official nickname of New York.
(...)
JOHN CIARDI
Metuchen, New Jersey
Posted by Barry Popik
New York CityThe Big Apple1970s-present: False Etymologies • Monday, July 12, 2004 • Permalink