- Note: the below discussion was moved from the Wiktionary:Tea room.
The etymology currently says this comes from the proverb about bad apples, but recent poking around suggests to me that it may be a pseudo-calque from the Latin cotonia mala, which is literally "bad quinces", but is tied etymologically to Cydonius (“Cretan”). The Romans held the Cretans in very low regard, and stereotyped them as lazy, immmoral, etc. It also seems quite possible that it may come from a Latin malum malum, from apple + inflected form of bad. --EncycloPetey 23:45, 5 December 2008 (UTC)
- b.g.c.'s oldest cite for "bad apple" with "spoil" is just 1881 or so, which surprised me. "one bad apple" gets only 8 more years. This quote from 1863 makes the saying seem less than proverbial as of that year:
1863, Rev. John Cumming, Driftwood, Seaweed, and Fallen Leaves, page 72:DCDuring TALK 01:40, 6 December 2008 (UTC)
- A bad man is necessarily an injury ; he affects other men. The dry-rot in a single timber will soon destroy the ship; a bad apple in a basketful will injure the whole. Individual life, therefore, affects the State
Another suggesting that bad apple as a simile may have had a life independent of the full proverb:
- 1861, Aubrey De Vere, "The Bard Ethel", The sisters, Inisfail, and other poems, page 148
The ‘full’ proverb as I have always known it is ‘the bad apple (that) spoils the barrel’. In the Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs it appears as ‘A rotten apple injures its neighbour’, and is traced back as far as the Ayenbite of Inwit of 1340: ‘A roted eppel amang the holen, makeþ rotie the yzounde.’ They note a Latin precedent, too: ‘pomum compunctum cito corrumpit sibi junctum’. Ƿidsiþ 16:36, 6 December 2008 (UTC)