What Is a "Bad Apple"?
A "bad apple" is someone or something that ruins everything around it. This particular phrase is part of a longer saying which states that "One bad apple spoils the barrel." Idioms like "bad apple" are able to communicate something more than just the meanings of the individual words. The word idiom is derived from the ideas behind two Greek words: idios, meaning personal or private and idiousthai, meaning to make your own. In modern vernacular, this idiom refers to one single thing or person can have a negative effect on all the things or persons around it.
In literal terms, the phrase 'bad apple" simply means that one bad or rotten apple can negatively affect all of the other apples in the same barrel. Rotting fruit produces various gases, like ethylene oxide, amylases, and proteases. Plant tissues also emit hormones, which may signal quicker ripening and, therefore, quicker rotting. Some apple growers actually pick fruit before it is ripe and expose it to ethylene gas right before sending it to market.
This particular idiom is thought to be derived from an old proverb, popular when societies were more agrarian. Similar popular sayings from the past state that "A good apple tree has the most sticks under it," and "A fish rots from the head down." Sayings like these have fallen out of use because people don't have to inspect the fish they have caught or the apples they have picked before they eat them. Rotten fish and apples usually don't reach the supermarket. "Bad apple" has remained because it has meaning that is applicable to modern life.
Today, "bad apple" may refer to one or a few members of a large organization whose behavior or antics affect an entire group in a negative way. A few loan officers may have been responsible for creating a wide-ranging mortgage crisis, a few bad cops could ruin the reputation and integrity of an entire police force, or one person's attitude could have a negative effect on the other people around them. So a "bad apple" is someone or something which causes the people or things in close proximity to be negatively affected.
In one way, the expression "bad apple" means something that needs to be removed before it can corrupt the rest of the group. A discontent employee who constantly criticizes the manager may have to be fired or reassigned so the rest of the team won't be negatively influenced by his or her bad attitude. Removing the "bad apple" is usually a good idea.
On the other hand, a "bad apple" is something that shouldn't be viewed as a representation of the entire group. When a police officer gets caught accepting a bribe or a minister gets caught committing adultery, that doesn't mean all members of those organizations are just as corrupt. One bad apple doesn't have to spoil the entire bunch.
The first time I ever heard the expression "one bad apple" was when the Osmond Brothers released a song by that title. I had to ask my mother what it meant. She told me that a rotting apple in a barrel would cause other apples it touched to rot, too. We actually had a bag of apples sitting on the counter, so she pulled one out that had bruises all over it. The rest were still okay to eat. She said if that one apple had stayed in the bag, the rest would have gone bad much faster.
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