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The Delicious Origins of 11 Fruitful Expressions

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The fleshy, edible, seed-bearing parts of plants are a fruitful source of terms and phrases. We’ve picked eleven for you.

1. APPLE OF SOMEONE’S EYE

The expression “apple of the eye” goes back to Old English. It referred to the pupil of the eye, which was thought to be a solid, spherical body. As early as the 10th century, it was used figuratively to mean something precious. By the 14th century, the apple of someone’s eye was a greatly cherished person.

2. BIG APPLE

Now the Big Apple is synonymous with New York City. When the term arose in the early 20th century, though, it had a more general meaning: a thing considered the most significant of its kind. It could be a VIP—a “big shot.” In 1911, the Chicago Defender, a nationally circulated African American newspaper, reported, “George Hayes and the Clancy Twins are the ‘big apple on the tree’ this week.” In 1920, vaudeville performer and writer for the Defender “Ragtime” Billy Tucker wrote that he was “still in the ‘Big Apple,’ Los Angeles.” But it soon became clear that, at least in horse racing and show business, New York was the place to be: the Big Apple. For another bite of the apple, look here.

3. BANANAS

“Bananas,” especially in the phrases “go bananas” or “drive someone bananas,” means crazy or wild. Some sources say the expression may be influenced by “go ape,” but in earlier slang “banana oil” or “bananas,” as in “what a load of bananas,” meant nonsense, insincere or insane talk or behavior. Incidentally, other heaps of soft, stinky stuff also symbolize crazy talk. Fill in the blank: “What a load of ____!” You said rubbish, tripe or Tommyrot; didn’t you?

4. TOP BANANA

The top banana was originally the comedian in a stage act who got top billing. Later, the meaning extended to refer to the leader or most important person in any group. In 1958, the New York Times reported, “[Phil] Silvers…credits another burlesque comedian, Harry Steppe, with introducing the phrase ‘top banana’ into show business jargon in 1927... It rose out of a routine...in which three comedians tried to share two bananas.”

5. CHERRY PICKING

Cherry picking, the biased selection of statistics to support an argument, may relate to the hydraulic crane (popularly known as a cherry picker) that allows a worker lifted on platform to select the best fruit (and not to the person ahead of you in a buffet line with the same advantage).

6. SOUR GRAPES

In Aesop’s fable “The Fox and the Grapes,” a hungry fox leaps at, but cannot reach, a bunch of grapes. As he slinks away he tells himself they weren’t ripe yet and he doesn’t need any sour grapes. People who disparage something they seem to want but can’t get are said to turn the object of desire into sour grapes.

7. LEMON

Since the Middle Ages, “sour” has been used figuratively to mean disappointing or unpleasant, and since the beginning of the 20th century, lemons have symbolized that sourness. “Lemon” is so apt an emblem for a deal gone sour that it’s become a term of art in finance. A Dictionary of Economics (Oxford, 2013) defines “lemon” as “an unsatisfactory product, where quality cannot reliably be checked before purchase…The market for second-hand cars is a typical example of the market for lemons at work.”

8. SWEET LEMONS

“Sweet lemons” are the opposite of “sour grapes”; Pollyannas who make the best of a bad situation are said to have an attitude of sweet lemons.

9. GO PEAR-SHAPED

“Go pear-shaped” is chiefly British slang for go wrong or go awry. The expression arose in the Royal Air Force, perhaps referring to the distorted shape of an aircraft that has crashed nose-first.

10. PLUM

Since the early 19th century, “plum” has meant any desirable thing, a coveted prize, the pick of a collection, the choice part of a book, etc. Now the word is used as an adjective describing something prized, like a “plum assignment.” The expression may come, as one source suggests, from picking the tastiest bits out of a plum pudding. One caveat though: plum pudding was never made with the fruit we now call plums. As Stephen Dowell explains in A History of Taxation and Taxes in England (1884), dried grapes are called raisins when eaten uncooked, but “plums when they form an ingredient in the famous English plum pudding.”

11. GIVE SOMEONE THE RASPBERRY

When you give the raspberry you show your contempt by sticking out your tongue and making a rude noise by expelling air between your tongue and upper lip. The term raspberry comes not from the pink color of your tongue but from Cockney rhyming slang. “Raspberry” is short for “raspberry tart,” which rhymes with another rude bodily sound.

Sources: OED Online; Oxford Dictionary of Modern Slang, Oxford Dictionary of English Idioms, Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable and other sources contained in Oxford Reference Online, via Los Angeles Public Library

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Big Questions
Where Does the Phrase '… And the Horse You Rode In On' Come From?
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Horses may no longer be the dominant form of transportation in the U.S., but the legacy of our horseback-riding history lives on in language. When telling people off, we still use the phrase “... and the horse you rode in on.” These days, it’s rare for anyone you're telling to go screw themselves to actually be an equestrian, so where did “and the horse you rode in on” come from, anyway?

Well, let’s start with the basics. The phrase is, essentially, an intensifier, one typically appended to the phrase “F*** you.” As the public radio show "A Way With Words" puts it, it’s usually aimed at “someone who’s full of himself and unwelcome to boot.” As co-host and lexicographer Grant Barrett explains, “instead of just insulting you, they want to insult your whole circumstance.”

The phrase can be traced back to at least the 1950s, but it may be even older than that, since, as Barrett notes, plenty of crude language didn’t make it into print in the early 20th century. He suggests that it could have been in wide use even prior to World War II.

In 1998, William Safire of The New York Times tracked down several novels that employed the term, including The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1972) and No Bugles, No Drums (1976). The literary editor of the latter book, Michael Seidman, told Safire that he heard the term growing up in the Bronx just after the Korean War, leading the journalist to peg the origin of the phrase to at least the late 1950s.

The phrase has had some pretty die-hard fans over the years, too. Donald Regan, who was Secretary of the Treasury under Ronald Reagan from 1981 through 1984, worked it into his official Treasury Department portrait. You can see a title along the spine of a book in the background of the painting. It reads: “And the Horse You Rode In On,” apparently one of Regan’s favorite sayings. (The book in the painting didn't refer to a real book, but there have since been a few published that bear similar names, like Clinton strategist James Carville’s book …and the Horse He Rode In On: The People V. Kenneth Starr and Dakota McFadzean’s 2013 book of comics Other Stories And the Horse You Rode In On.)

It seems that even in a world where almost no one rides in on a horse, insulting a man’s steed is a timeless burn.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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language
How to Say Merry Christmas in 26 Different Languages
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“Merry Christmas” is a special greeting in English, since it’s the only occasion we say “merry” instead of “happy.” How do other languages spread yuletide cheer? Ampersand Travel asked people all over the world to send in videos of themselves wishing people a “Merry Christmas” in their own language, and while the audio quality is not first-rate, it’s a fun holiday-themed language lesson.

Feel free to surprise your friends and family this year with your new repertoire of foreign-language greetings.

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