A history of NYC nicknames
Gotham, Fear City, the Capital of the World---historian Michael Miscone explains synonyms for the Big Apple.
Tue Jan 18 2011
The Empire City Legend has it that George Washington, while tramping through the woods north of the city, proclaimed, "Surely this is the seat of the empire!" The nickname wouldn't filter through the press until an 1836 Illinois newspaper described NYC as "the Rome of America, the Empire City of the New World."
Canvas Town Blame the redcoats for this disastrous alias: In 1776, when the British occupied New York during the Revolutionary War, a massive fire cut through the area. Residents who lost homes were forced to live in canvas shacks.
Gotham In the Middle Ages, a series of stories circulated about England's tiny city of Gotham, where locals acted crazy to keep the king out of their town for fear of losing their land. Washington Irving was the first to apply the name to NYC in his periodical essay series Salmagundi (1807), perhaps to poke fun at his contemporaries.
The Big Apple No origin story is completely reliable, but this appellation has a bookworthy history: In Origin of New York City's Nickname "The Big Apple," authors Gerald L. Cohen and Barry Popik trace the term from the big Red Delicious apples grown in Iowa in the 1870s, which were regarded as the most special version of the fruit. Years later, a 1920s horse-race writer for New York paper The Morning Telegraph overheard stable hands using the phrase to describe NYC's racetracks, which represented the big time. In the 1930s, black jazz musicians used the nickname to refer to Harlem, then to the city overall. It then lost popularity until 1971, when it was used for a New York Convention and Visitors Bureau PR campaign.
The City of Churches This devout phrase dates back to when Brooklyn was its own city (pre-1898) and locals there took particular pride in their church-going culture, as well as the myriad Protestant houses of worship in their town.
The Modern Gomorrah In the 19th century, Manhattan was the devilish opposite to Brooklyn's piety. In 1875 at the Brooklyn Tabernacle, Reverend T. De Witt Talmage was among the first to attack NYC with this epithet, for failing to stop organized crime.
Second City of the World After the five boroughs came together as one in 1898, New York had the second-highest population of any city in the world (close to 3.5 million), after London.
The City that Never Sleeps New York's insomnia is well known: The first print reference is from a 1912 story in the Fort Wayne News, about NYC erecting the world's largest gas plant, ensuring that the metropolis would "add to its title of the city that never sleeps that of the city that never grows dark."
Fun City Ironically, Mayor John Lindsay unintentionally created this sobriquet at the beginning of a 12-day transit strike in 1966, when he claimed that New York was "still a fun city." New Yorkers were not amused.
Fear City There was a lot to be afraid of in 1975: The city endured an economic collapse and suffered from high crime rates. The same year, the NYPD protested cutbacks by handing out "Welcome to Fear City" flyers to tourists, warning them to "stay away if you possibly can," and offered advice on how to remain safe if they wouldn't leave—like avoiding the subway at all costs.