A list of apple idioms
Let’s have a look at the role of apple idioms in the English language…
Good and bad apples
Apples in expressions often seem to be used as an equivalent for the word thing or person. Somebody can be described as a good apple, bad apple, or rotten apple, and New York City even becomes the Big Apple. In Spanish, to take a walk around the block is to dar una vuelta a la manzana (‘to walk around the apple’). In Cockney rhyming slang apples are stairs (after apples and pears) while round objects seem particularly susceptible to comparison, unsurprisingly: old apple for baseball, love apple for tomato (in archaic use), and that ‘projection at the front of the neck formed by the thyroid cartilage of the larynx, often prominent in men’, otherwise known as the Adam’s apple (and, earlier, Adam’s morsel). More on Adam later…
Apples are not the only fruit
Other expressions note the way in which an apple is not like something that is not an apple. In North American use, two people or things are described as apples and oranges if they are irreconcilably or fundamentally different (a British equivalent is chalk and cheese). Further back is the now-obsolete phrase as like as an apple to an oyster (and variants) with the same indication.
How do you like them apples?
It’s not entirely clear why apples have been designated as the objects that summarize a general state or eventuality, but they have – as the expression how do you like them apples? attests. It is colloquial and chiefly used in North America, and usually used in a jeering way, implying that the thing referred to will be unwelcome – and was memorably used by Matt Damon’s Will in the 1997 film Good Will Hunting.
In a similar line, but altogether more positively, Australian and New Zealand English include the slang reassurance she’s apples or it’s apples – i.e. everything is, or will be, fine. As the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) note adds, this is ‘perhaps short for either apples and spice or apples and rice, apparently rhyming slang for nice, although there is apparently no evidence to support this’.
The apple of my eye
Continuing in the positive line, somebody is described as the apple of my eye if they are the particular object of a person’s affection or regard. This use dates back to Old English, but the expression apple of the eye originally denoted the pupil of the eye, considered to be a globular solid body. In early use, the figurative version was frequently in allusion to Biblical passages including Psalm 17:8: ‘Keep me as the apple of your eye, hide me in the shadow of your wings’.
The apple never falls far from the tree
This little tip would have helped Newton no end. The apple never does fall from the tree – except perhaps in cases of a strong gale – and this is used figuratively as a proverb meaning ‘important family characteristics are usually inherited’. It can be used either positively or negatively, to draw comparison between somebody and one or both of their parents. (Incidentally, in French tomber dans les pommes – fall into the apples – is a euphemism for ‘to faint’).
An apple a day keeps the doctor away
Sadly, thorough and rigorous scientific experiment has suggested that an apple a day is not the key to immortality, but this rhyming advice about fruit intake has certainly entered public consciousness. The earliest-known example of a phrase along these lines is found in 1866, which claims it as a Pembrokeshire proverb; this particular instance is eat an apple on going to bed, and you’ll keep the doctor from earning his bread. This version, admittedly, makes it seem almost vindictive to stay healthy…
Apple of discord/contention/dissension
An apple that was a troublemaker was the apple of discord. To quote the OED note, this is used ‘with allusion to the myth that a golden apple inscribed ‘For the fairest’ was thrown by Eris, goddess of discord, among the guests at the wedding of Peleus and Thetis, and contended for by the goddesses Hera, Athene, and Aphrodite’. Now it is any cause or subject of strife or dissension. Indeed, introducing an apple of discord might well upset the apple cart – that is, ‘spoil a plan or disturb the status quo’.
As sure as God made little apples (and variants) is used as a synonym for ‘certainly’ (as is the secular equivalent as sure as apples are apples). But one apple in particular is up for debate. Adam’s apple takes its name from the idea of the apple becoming lodged in Adam’s throat in the Garden of Eden, after he ate the forbidden fruit Eve gave him.
Forbidden fruit is used intentionally – because (as the OED entry for apple notes) nowhere in Genesis is it said that the fruit is an apple; in the Jewish Talmud it is variously identified as the grape, the fig, or wheat. The identification as an apple appears to have arisen in the post-classical Latin tradition – potentially as a pun between the classical Latin mālum (apple) and malum (evil). The term forbidden fruit has now taken on the wider meaning ‘a thing that is desired all the more because it is not allowed’.