The colours, shapes and textures of fruit are often applied to humans, usually children and women: we say a woman is ‘peach’ because of the colour and smoothness of her complexion.
But a well-known fruity comparison puzzles many people. Why do we say that someone is ‘the apple of my eye’? Why not some smaller fruit such as the grape, cherry or gooseberry?
This term goes back a long way and it frequently refers to children. Trollope wrote in Doctor Thorne (1858): “He had her of his own, who was the apple of his eye.”
In Nancy Mitford’s Love in a Cold Climate (1949) a daughter is described as “such a treasure, so much the apple of their eye”.
In Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters (1865) a young girl remarks: “The squire looks upon him as the apple of his eye.” But this gets a stern rebuke from her mother.
“Molly, Molly! Pray don’t let me hear you using such vulgar expressions. When shall I teach you true refinement which consists in never thinking a vulgar commonplace thing. Proverbs and idioms are never used by people of education. Apple of his eye? I am really shocked.”
But the term has a much longer pedigree. Shakespeare used it in A Midsummer’s Night Dream: “Flower of this purple dye,/Hit with Cupid’ s archery,/Sink in the apple of his eye.”
And the term appears several times in the King James translation of the Bible (1611). In Deuteronomy (32:10) we read: “He found him in a desert land, and in the waste howling wilderness; he led him about, he instructed him, he kept him as the apple of his eye.”
In biblical uses of this term, it is usually reserved for something unique and distinguished or in need of special protection.
The earliest written use of this phrase is in King Alfred’s 9th century book The Lays of Boethius. In this translation of Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, a selection of alliterative poems written in Latin, we read: “He protected them as carefully as a man does the apple of his eye.”
These earlier uses of the term show us its origins. When we use the phrase today we seem to be comparing the object of our affection to an apple’s pretty hues of russets, greens and yellows.
But centuries ago the pupil of the eye was actually called the apple — a word that could refer to anything globular: in those early times the apple of one’s eye was a literal description of the pupil.
And because sight is so precious and has to be protected, the term was eventually used as one of endearment for those beloved members of our family or social group.
Apple is used in other idioms and slang. The ‘apple-cart’ is a late 17th century word for the human body. ‘Down with his apple-cart’ meant to knock or throw him down.
In the Merchant Navy, ‘apple daddy’ was dried apple rings soaked and then cooked in a pastry case and served as dessert on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
This was considered to be a great delicacy and sailors would steal the apple rings if they were left unattended while soaking.
The ‘apple dumpling shop’ was a late 18th century term for a woman’s breasts. From that came ‘apple-monger’ and ‘apple squire’, a prostitute’s pimp.
The ‘Apple Corps’ was mid-20th century railwaymen’s slang for footplatemen from Somerset…a pun on the cider county.
If something was in ‘apple pie’ order it was in perfect order or of impeccable precision. But an ‘apple-pie bed’ is a practical joke with the sheets folded so that one’s legs cannot be stretched out and the bed has to be re-made — even if it’s 2am and you’ve just got in after a night out in the Latin Quarter of Paris, as happened to me during a school visit to the French capital.
Sheer impudence can be called ‘apple sauce’ and ‘apple polisher’ is Canadian slang for a toady: before giving an apple to the teacher, a pupil polished it until it had a high gloss.
At the start of today’s page I mentioned that ‘peach’ can be used to refer to a woman, especially one who has a perfect complexion.
During the First World War, and for some time afterwards, the Admiralty was known as The Peach House on account of the remarkably high number of pretty girl clerks employed there.
In motorcycling circles of the 1930s, the pillion seat of a young man’s machine was called the ‘peach perch’ — especially when his girlfriend was sitting there.
But the term ‘peachy’, especially in America in the 1920s, meant very pleasant and could be applied to anything, not just pretty girls.
On the other hand, ‘peechy’ had nothing to do with the fruit. It was a late 19th century word that came from the Hindustani ‘pichhe’, which in Army slang came to mean backside and, by extension, idling.
When a private seemed to be idling, a junior officer would say to him: “What are you doing there sitting on your peechy?”
A soldier, nearing his demob date or a posting home, would use that as an excuse for doing little or no work. He would say: “Can’t affect me, I’m peechy.” A ‘peechy boy’ was one who was in that situation.
But ‘peach’ could also be a more serious word. It meant, for instance, to divulge or to impeach and also to inform against another person. Writers such as Shakespeare, Thackeray and Fielding used it in that sense.
Apple also features in rhyming slang. There’s ‘apple core’ for a £20 note (the rhyme being on score) as well as the well-known ‘apples and pears’ for stairs. The late 19th century ‘apples and rice’ meant extremely nice, as in “Oh, ve-ry nice, ve-ry apples and rice”.
If you asked for an ‘apple fritter’ in a 19th century pub you would have been served a tankard of bitter. But if you were talking about ‘apple pie’ you’d be referring to the sky.