Saturday, November 19, 2011

Does one bad apple really spoil the bunch?

We've all heard the phrase, "One bad apple spoils the bunch," but where does this idea actually come from? I know it seems like a common sense thing...if you have a basket full of apples, make sure to throw away any rotten ones so they don't contaminate the good ones. But I think we all know that the literal meaning isn't necessarily what the phrase stands for.

The first known usage of the phrase is found in a list of 14th century Latin proverbs but famed English author Geoffrey Chaucer really put it on the map when he said "Better take the rotten apple from the hoard than let it lie to spoil the good ones there" in "The Cook's Tale" of The Canterbury Tales. The first American usage of the phrase is found in Poor Richard's Almanac.

By the late 19th/early 20th century in the US, it became common to use that phrase to describe the corruption in the Federal government; not everybody in the government was bad but the bad people ruined it for everyone. There was also the idea that if the one bad apple (corrupt politician) isn't removed, it will ultimately corrupt the entire bushel (the whole government).

I supposed that we can always try the "glass half full" viewpoint on this idiom if we look at it figuratively instead of applying it only to apples. Maybe a bad person will actually change his stripes and do the right thing when he sees others doing so. Call me cynical but I'm thinking not on this view.

But since it's Fall and apples are in season, make sure you look through your basket and throw away the bad ones.

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