The Fascinating History of the “Bad Apples” Proverb

I read an article from NPR that explored the etymological history of the proverb: “A few bad apples spoil the barrel.” According to the article, the majority meaning for “a few bad apples” has completely reversed from its original import:

Back then [in the 19th century], nobody ever talked about “just a few bad apples” or “only a few rotten apples” — the whole point was that even one was enough to taint the group. These days, those are the phrases people use to imply that some misdeeds were an isolated incident — a couple of rogue cops, a handful of unprincipled loan officers, two or three sociopathic soldiers. Then there’s the version that goes, “There are always going to be a few bad apples.” That’s a counsel of moral realism: as in, there’s evil in the world; get over it. It’s not a sentiment you would have heard in a 19th century sermon, much less from a grocer you were complaining to about the wormy fruit he’d sold you the week before. “Well, Mrs. Gold, we all have to expect find a few rotten apples, don’t we?”

As our society has drifted further away from agrarian living, proverbs built on agrarian wisdom have become more and more incoherent to us. This is such an important idea. If you think about it, there is no reason why material reality should necessarily provide any guidance in our metaphysical search for understanding. It could have been the case that one or two rotten apples wasn’t enough to spoil the whole bunch. Why not? Why should the situation with bad apples in a barrel be at all similar to the situation with bad people in a group?

The odd thing about old wisdom is that most of it sprang out of sweat and dust—out of toil and experience. Our society exists completely disassociated from the material sources of our life. We don’t know where our food comes from or what it costs. We don’t know how anything came to be actually. It just is. And because we are disconnected from material causes, we find it easier to to believe lies. We find it easy to turn a deaf ear to wisdom.

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