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Bad Apple, Bad Metaphor

Published Friday, June 05, 2020 @ 7:45 AM EDT
Jun 05 2020

Why does no one point out that this "bad apple" metaphor used on what seems an hourly basis is exactly the opposite of its original meaning?

Today it's wielded to defend organizations from the misdeeds of its members, suggesting that an entire organization shouldn't be condemned because of the actions of a few scoundrels. Every group has one or two "bad apples," right?

The full adage is "One bad apple can spoil the whole bunch," quite different from its current use. A century or so ago, in the age preceding refrigeration and modern food handling, the maxim wasn't a metaphor for undesirable human behavior. It was a simple statement of fact.

Apples emit the gaseous plant hormone ethylene, and an overripe apple produces a great deal of it. In a confined space-like a bushel basket- the gas accelerates the ripening of the other fruit in the container. I remember this as a science experiment at summer camp. Put three slightly underripe apples in a bag with one overripe one. A couple days later: four bad apples.

"One bad apple…" was also used metaphorically around the beginning of the twentieth century, but in a manner closer to its literal meaning: that if a group had one or two "bad apples," then the entire organization was probably suspect.

So, how was the meaning of the saying inverted?

Around 1970, the Jackson 5 recorded their hit "ABC", passing on a tune that songwriter George Jackson had written for them. Instead, Jackson gave it to The Osmonds. In 2011, NPR contributor Geoff Nunberg posited the popularity of the song- it was #1 for five weeks and was the group's first #1 hit- somehow got stuck in the national consciousness, where it's been ever since. Whether Jackson had misheard the aphorism, or was deliberately distorting it, is unknown. Jackson died in 2013 without ever explaining his reasoning for the song "One Bad Apple (Don't Spoil The Whole Bunch)."

Categories: Bad apples, Ethylene, George Jackson, One Bad Apple (Don't Spoil the Whole Bunch), The Jackson Five, The Osmonds


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