Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

One Bad Apple Spoils The Whole Barrel

Posted by Elyse Bruce on March 27, 2013

All it takes is one bad apple to spoil the barrel, and that’s because the one apple that’s gone bad gives off ethylene, speeding the ripening of all the other apples in the same barrel as the bad apple. But what does it mean when you’re talking about something other than a real apple?

If someone in a group is referred to as a bad apple, best be aware that this could be the downfall of the whole group. In other words, the negative influence of one in a group could prove to be the undoing of the entire group that would otherwise — without the negative influence — remain good.

Of course, it’s true that every group of people also has those who are malcontents, troublemakers, or dishonest. Unfortunately, if such people have sway or influence on others in their group, studies have shown that the standards of the group as a whole begin a downward trajectory towards the negative behavior.

The Windsor Daily Star chose to publish a Letter To The Editor written by Mrs. M. Starchuck of Sub P.O. No. 11, in their February 16, 1939 edition. The author of the letter entitled, “World Not So Bad After All” addressed the issue of complaints about how bad things are in the world. A realistic woman, she appears to also have been a woman of considerable optimism and warmth as she wrote in part:

Relief in some cases has been abused, making it harder for the honest persons to get justice. You know that one bad apple spoils the whole barrel. But cheer up. It can’t last forever, and it is always the darkest before the dawn. There are a good many big-hearted people in the old world yet, and willing workers to help the down-trodden.

And in the Chautauqua Farmer of June 20, 1894 printed a lengthy article on the world journey of Reverend Dr. Talmage whose sermon “Another Chance” addressed the matter of what was to happen to people when they passed away and moved on to that other plane when they left this mortal coil. The one chance given in life, according to Dr. Talmage, was the last change given before the verdict would be rendered on each of our earthly lives. There was no reversal of judgment in the next world, according to his sermon, and no hope of an opportunity to correct the mistakes of this life in the afterlife. His sermon stated in part:

The entire kingdom of the morally bankrupt by themselves, where are the salvatory influences to come from? Can one speckled and bad apple in a barrel of disease apples turn the other apples good? Can those who are themselves down help others up? Can those who have themselves failed in the business of soul pay the debts of their spiritual insolvents? Can a million wrongs make one right?

As readers of Idiomation know, the Poor Richard’s Almanack published by Benjamin Franklin oftentimes contained well-established sayings and the 1736 edition was no different where the following was found:

The rotten apple spoils his companion.

The saying hails from John Northebrooke in his book entitled, “A Treatise Wherein Dicing, Dauncing (etc.) Are Reproved” published in 1577. The passage exact passage was:

A penny naughtily gotten, sayth Chysostoms, is like a rotten apple laid among sounde apples, which will rot all the rest.

Long before John Northebrooke, however, there was Geoffrey Chaucer (1343 – 25 October 1400).  In his “Canterbury Tales” readers come across the following passage in unfinished “The Cook’s Tale.”

Uppon a proverbe that seith this same worde:
“Better ys rotten appulle out of an hurde
Than for to let hem rote alle the remenaunte.”
And ryght so it fareth by a ryotes servaunte.

This passage loosely translates as this:

About an old proverb, the words that say:
“A rotten apple‘s better thrown away
Before it spoils the barrel.” That is true
When dealing with a bad apprentice too.

That Chaucer should refer to this saying as an old proverb indicates that he is not the original author of the expression.  Unfortunately, the proverb to which Chaucer refers has eluded research and as such, Idiomation tacks this expression to at least the 13th Century since it is alleged to be a proverb.  It’s suspected, however, that the saying is far older than this even though it cannot be proven at this point on the Idiomation blog.

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