Spit out "a second bite at the apple"


Spit out "a second bite at the apple"

Food Friday: Wrong In the Tooth

MY WIFE WAS reading some South African legal texts recently and came across multiple uses of the expression "a second bite at the cherry." A second bite at the which now? What happened to "a second bite at the apple"? Do they use a whole different fruit idiom over there?

Apparently they do! Google Books doesn't offer a South African English corpus of text for examination, but it does have British English. I assumed, parochially but defensibly, that any part of the Anglosphere that was still under the crown in the 20th century would count as speaking British—and a Google Ngram search confirmed that "a second bite at the apple" (or "another bite at the apple") is the dominant usage in American English, while "cherry" is dominant in British.

Usually I'm a chauvinist about which kind of English is better. Most British usage seems like a bunch of pointless affectations from people who are too hoity-toity to call a truck a truck and so pedantic they want to jab an extra syllable into "aluminum" to make it rhyme with more of the periodic table. But on this one, the monarchists come out ahead. The American version is nonsense.

"A second bite at the apple" never felt natural to me, as a native speaker of American English. It isn't some time-honored idiom, a piece of folk wisdom polished down through the ages, but a relatively new stock phrase that didn't catch on till the 1980s. It has a particular contemporary hollowness, like "at the end of the day." (Google Ngrams caps searches at five words, but "the end of the day" started rising in the '80s and kept rocketing upward.)

What is it even supposed to mean? Most of the time, it seems to be trying to convey that someone is getting an unwonted extra chance at something. But unless you're an elephant, getting a second bite at the apple is just how apple-eating works. Someone would have to grab the bitten apple out of your hand to prevent it.

Inasmuch as I thought about it at all, I might have halfway pictured one of those Halloween party games where people try to bite into apples dangling on strings. That still didn't make sense, but it was the only context I could think of where the ability to bite at an apple would be in any sort of doubt.

A cherry is a different kind of fruit, though. The Oxford Dictionary of Idioms explains the concept in its entry for "a bite at the cherry"

This phrase is often used in the negative, to express the idea that you will not get a second chance (a second bite at the cherry). If you take two attempts to do something, especially some quite small task, this is taking two bites at the same cherry or another bite at the cherry.

There's still something a little off-kilter about saying "bite at the cherry," since a normal cherry-eating bite would go right on through the cherry-space and engulf the cherry whole. But you certainly don't get to do that twice. Not to the same cherry, anyway.

The British are right; the Americans are wrong. If you're American, should you start saying "another bite at the cherry" instead of "another bite at the apple"? No. Americans are used to hearing the worse version, and if you say the better one, you'll just be one of those people who goes around speaking British to call attention to themself. Besides, it's still a cliche. Look for something else irrevocable. Another stomp on the puffball? Another scratch at the scratch-off lottery ticket? Just chuck the apple.

Photo of a blue sky and a wispy shred of fractus cloud

New York City, February 29, 2024

★★★★ Hats and scarves were out as people went their various ways in the morning streets. A shred of fractus shone bright white at the zenith. Midtown facing downtown was an impenetrable dazzle of direct and reflected light. The air was cold enough to hurt. A carabiner on a counterfeit purse or wallet on a sheet on the sidewalk caught the sun and flashed; the glass pyramid on the top of One Worldwide Plaza let the sun shine through. Back uptown, a small plastic bag chased a large leaf in circles in the middle of Central Park West. In the dry apartment, cling wrap leaped back on itself or lunged at a forearm, and petting the cat in her carpeted cat-perch brought on little electric prickles. The night was so clear that the stars were shining and even twinkling. Orion stood sharp and distinct above an apartment building until, with the rounding of a corner, he was lost in the glare of ambulance lights.


Indignity Morning Podcast No. 228: A really interesting turn of phrase.

Tom Scocca, Joe MacLeod • Mar 1, 2024

Please stick around past the chimes of today’s podcast for a special Commercial Message from Flaming Hydra.

A scale with a hand doing "thumbs up" gesture opposed by another hand also doing a "thumbs up" on the other side of the scale but weighing more even though they look the same

Ask The Sophist

GOT SOMETHING YOU need to justify to yourself, or to the world at large? Other columnists are here to judge you, but The Sophist is here to tell you why you’re right. Please send your questions to The Sophist, at indignity@indignity.net, and get the answers you want.


WE PRESENT INSTRUCTIONS in aid of the assembly of a sandwich from The Central Cook Book: A Collection of Tested Recipes, compiled and published by Circle Number Three, Central Methodist Church, Raleigh, N.C. in 1924, now in the Public Domain and available at archive.org for the delectation of all.

Peanut-Butter Mixtures
Peanut butter moistened with a little cream salad dressing or butter is a favorite sandwich filling. The flavor blends particularly well with preserved fruits, nuts, and with such succulent vegetables as celery or onions. Peanut butter mixed with the following combinations is pleasing:

Chopped dill, sweet or sour pickles, raisins, dates, figs, or bananas; minced preserved ginger and lemon juice; cream cheese currant jelly; cream cheese and dates chopped and rubbed to a paste; thin slices of tomato, thin slices of sweet onion, chopped olive and celery. [Ed. note: commas and semicolons are presented in their original baffling arrangement; the reader assumes the divisions between peanut-butter sandwich ingredients or groups of ingredients at their own risk.]

Cheese and Nut Sandwiches
Cream cheese by adding enough hot water to make it soft enough to spread, chop nuts fine, add salad dressing, and sprinkle with cayenne pepper, spread on thin slices of bread.
—Mrs. R. B. Templeton.

Tomato Mixtures
A great variety of excellent sandwich mixtures may be made with tomato soup and cheese. This must, however, be well seasoned.

1 can tomato soup.
2 or more egg yolks.
1/2 pound American cheese cut in small pieces.

Simmer the soup until quite thick. Add the cheese and stir or beat with an egg beater until the cheese is melted. Add the beaten egg yolk and beat until it is cooked. Remove and cool. This makes about one pint.

This may be varied by adding any of the following:

Two tablespoons of capers; three or more finely minced pimientoes; two tablespoons or more of horseradish; finely minced green pepper; three or four chopped green pickles, or combinations of any of the above.

Other seasonings that may be added are horseradish, onion juice, lemon juice, chopped celery, Worchestershire, or any meat sauce.

Sandwiches made from any of the above mixtures are delicious if the bread is first spread with butter seasoned with anchovy or sardine paste, or with plain butter and one of the prepared sardine, caviar, or anchovy pastes.

If you decide to prepare and attempt to enjoy a sandwich inspired by this offering, be sure to send a picture to indignity@indignity.net.


The second printing of 19 FOLK TALES is now available for gift-giving and personal perusal! Huddle up against the cold with a cozy collection of stories, each of which is concise enough to read within the snowy part of a wintry-mix storm.

HMM WEEKLY MINI-ZINE, Subject: GAME SHOW, Joe MacLeod’s account of his Total Experience of a Journey Into Television, expanded from the original published account found here at Hmm Daily. The special MINI ZINE features other viewpoints related to an appearance on, at, and inside the teevee game show Who Wants to Be A Millionaire, available for purchase at SHOPULA.

INDIGNITY is a general-interest publication for a discerning and self-selected audience. We appreciate and depend on your support!