As stories of police brutality and anti-police brutality protests continue to dominate the headlines, you may have noticed some people placing the blame on “a few bad apples.”
However, as a listener named Louis Finkelman recently wrote to us, this expression “has changed its meaning 180 degrees in the past few decades.”
Ben Zimmer, a linguist and language columnist for the Wall Street Journal, recently discussed “a few bad apples” and its transformation on ABC News.
As Zimmer points out, this idiom goes back to at least 1340 in English. The original phrase was, “A rotten apple quickly infects its neighbor.” It meant that a rotten apple, or a rotten person, corrupts others. By the 18th century, we start to see phrases like “one bad apple spoils the barrel.”
This idiom largely died out at the end of the 19th century, but it made a comeback in the 20th century with a new meaning. Zimmer points out that by this time, most people were purchasing apples individually at grocery stories, where rotten apples are rarely seen:
"If the previous image [of a rotten apple] isn't related to our lives significantly anymore, it sort of disconnects it from its original context. And once the phrase is out there again and people are saying 'one bad apple,' you think, 'What could that mean?' Then you can assign it new meaning."
Another factor that likely helped solidify the idiom’s new meaning was the 1970 song “One Bad Apple” by the Osmonds. Many of you probably remember this peppy hit from the group’s Saturday morning cartoon, whether it be fondly or otherwise.
This song interprets the phrase to mean that an entire group shouldn't be judged by the actions of one person. Or, as the Osmonds so eloquently put it, “One bad apple don’t spoil the whole bunch, girl.”
The phrase and its new meaning take off in the 1980s. Feel free to blame the Osmonds.