'A few bad apples': Phrase describing rotten police officers used to have different meaning

The proverb, now more popular than ever, no longer carries the same logic.

June 14, 2020, 11:12 AM

"A few bad apples" is a phrase Americans have heard more than a few times recently as protests against police brutality, spurred by the death of George Floyd, continue throughout the U.S.

Several officials have used this phrase to defend police organizations as videos emerge of violent misconduct by officers during protests and the now-familiar release of footage showing fatal arrests of black men who pleaded, "I can't breathe."

It's a proverb whose meaning has changed 180 degrees from its origins, according to Ben Zimmer, a linguist and language columnist for The Wall Street Journal.

"The original phrase being, 'A rotten apple quickly infects its neighbor,'" Zimmer told ABC News. "Historically, there is a version of this proverb going way back; the earliest is from 1340 in English and probably earlier in Latin."

Throughout the 19th century, a version of the original was frequently used in Sunday sermons: "As one bad apple spoils the others, so you must show no quarter to sin or sinners."

"The idea of the proverb was to take this image of rotting that can have a corrupting influence on the apples nearby and using that as a kind of a metaphor to say, 'You have to be careful about a bit of wrongdoing in an organization or it could have this overall corrupting effect on an entire system,'" Zimmer continued.

The proverb also mirrored the actual science of a rotting apple. Apples, and other fruits, emit a ripening agent, and when placed together, they do indeed spoil the others.

As time passed, other versions of the idiom formed. "The rotten apple spoils his companion" appears in published work by Benjamin Franklin in 1736. That one eventually morphed to, "One bad apple spoils the barrel," with the ending varying to baskets or bins. But by the end of the 19th century, the proverb seemed to disappear almost entirely, and when it returned in the 20th century, its meaning shifted in a significant way.

PHOTO: An illustration from 19th century.
STOCK PHOTO/Getty Images

Barrels, baskets and bins were no longer closely associated with apples. Most people were purchasing their apples individually, inspecting each one at the market. Shoppers rely on grocery stores to select fresh apples they can choose from and rotten apples are seldom, if ever, included in the display.

Zimmer said losing the visual of the "barrel" and rotten apples itself contributed to the shift in phrasing, adding that proverbs often stick around in language longer than the things they originally refer to.

"If the previous image [of a rotten apple] isn't related to our lives significantly anymore, it sort of disconnects it from its original context. And once the phrase is out there again and people are saying 'one bad apple,' you think, 'What could that mean?' Then you can assign it new meaning."

Without the reminder of rotting apples, people were free to draw their own conclusion. An important influence in establishing a new meaning came in the 1970s, when the Osmonds released their hit song "One Bad Apple (Don't Spoil the Whole Bunch, Girl)," reversing the emphasis entirely.

"It's basically saying, 'Well, don't worry, it's fine,'" Zimmer said. "So before the idea was that even one bad apple was enough to taint the whole group, and now the idea is, well, you can discount the bad apple because it's not representative of the entire group."

One bad apple became a few bad apples as the phrase slowly became a defense for a few rogue cops. Reports show officials used the flipped proverb after the Rodney King beating in 1991, the 2014 fatal shooting of Michael Brown , after the fatal shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, and now in the midst of protests over the killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.

PHOTO: Rodney King sits in court in Alhambra, Calif., on July 8, 1996.
Rodney King sits in court in Alhambra, Calif., on July 8, 1996.
Nick Ut/AP

"The way it's used rhetorically now is often defensively to protect the reputation of a group of people, minimizing concern over what happens with certain members of a group," Zimmer said.

Not only had the meaning changed, but during the idiom's revival it actually became more popular than before -- a rare move for a proverb.

"This is an unusual case where it was fading, but it makes this big comeback with a different meaning. I can't think of very many expressions like that," Zimmer said.

From scientists to late-night hosts, some have attempted to bring the phrase back to its original meaning.

A published study by University of Washington in 2007 even looked into the 19th-century version to find out if, in fact, one bad actor could ruin the bunch. Researchers found that not only did "bad apples" create a negative environment for organizations, workplaces and groups, but also had a "powerful, detrimental" influence on the group entirely.

Zimmer said it's best not to think of proverbs in a literal way. One could explain the historic or scientific context, but within the constructs of idiomatic language, there isn't a right or wrong.

"It's difficult to say, 'Well, you are using it the wrong way,'" Zimmer said. "People can insist, but usage changes and sometimes it doesn't follow any logical reasoning. It's just the way language naturally develops."

Just recently, the phrase has turned up in official channels.

From Atlanta to Buffalo, New York, officers handling protests are being charged after violent videos spread, contradicting the officers' testimonies. When asked about the incidents, national security adviser Robert O'Brien said in an interview with CNN that the issue is the result of a "few bad apples," not a result of systemic racism.

PHOTO: In this image from video provided by WBFO, a Buffalo police officer appears to shove a man who walked up to police, June 4, 2020, in Buffalo, N.Y.
In this image from video provided by WBFO, a Buffalo police officer appears to shove a man who walked up to police, June 4, 2020, in Buffalo, N.Y.
Mike Desmond/WBFO via AP

At a House committee hearing on police brutality on Tuesday, Republican Rep. Mike Johnson blamed problems in law enforcement on a "few bad apples."

And on Thursday at a discussion on race relations and policing, President Donald Trump stated, "You always have a bad apple, no matter where you go," claiming bad actors will always be a part of life, but "there aren't too many of them in the police department."

While Zimmer said it's possible for the idiom to revert back, given the proverb's popularity, it would be challenging to change course.

"This is something that has been going on since the mid-20th century at least," he said. "Obviously the original meaning hasn't been lost completely or we wouldn't be talking about it. It's still out there and confusing to people. You have two versions of things that mean the opposite."