Back then, nobody ever talked about "just a few bad apples" or "only a few rotten apples" — the whole point was that even one was enough to taint the group. These days, those are the phrases people use to imply that some misdeeds were an isolated incident — a couple of rogue cops, a handful of unprincipled loan officers, two or three sociopathic soldiers. Then there's the version that goes, "There are always going to be a few bad apples." That's a counsel of moral realism: as in, there's evil in the world; get over it. It's not a sentiment you would have heard in a 19th century sermon, much less from a grocer you were complaining to about the wormy fruit he'd sold you the week before. "Well, Mrs. Gold, we all have to expect find a few rotten apples, don't we?"
But it can be a more effective defense to offer a proverb that closes down the discussion with a bit of venerable folk wisdom — in this case, one about not letting a few rotten apples spoil the bushel.
|Part 2 of the Elf quest series|
|Related||Quick guide • Transcript|
But as the memory of rotting apples fades, the meaning of the "bad apple" proverb has changed. In 19th century America, it was a staple of Sunday morning sermons: "As one bad apple spoils the others, so you must show no quarter to sin or sinners." Or it could suggest that finding one malefactor in a group should make you suspicious of everybody else. "A bad apple spoils the bin," one journalist wrote in 1898 of the Dreyfus Affair; if one officer is capable of forgery then why wouldn't others be as well?
Or take the one about "a few bad apples," the reflexive defense whenever misconduct surfaces in the midst of some organization, from Enron to Abu Ghraib to Haditha to the mortgage meltdown. It's an ancient bit of counsel, whether it's said of bad apples or rotten ones, or of bushels, barrels, baskets or bins. Benjamin Franklin had it as "the rotten apple spoils his companion," which goes back to Shakespeare's time.