Famous Sayings #188 — ‘A Few Bad Apples’

July 27, 2020

I think that the police department is a force for good. About 99.9% of police officers are good, but there are a few bad apples mixed in there

The best way to deal with bad apples is to take them out of the group as quickly as possible.

a few bad apples, spoil the bunch, one bad apple spoils the entire barrel, apples, famous sayings
Image by Ulrike Leone from Pixabay

The first quote above is a generic statement that many Americans have read or heard in some form over the years.

This second quote comes from Henry L. Tischler, who wrote this in the Introduction to Sociology (2011). (I found it on Merriam-Webster.com.)

I’ve never really given such statements like the first quote much thought, and with good reason. But today, the phrase takes on more importance as we have seen many cases of police brutality, especially in the face of law enforcement being questioned and challenged with these protests.

What Is a Bad Apple, Figuratively Speaking?

A “bad apple” or a “rotten apple” is a dishonest and unpleasant person who has a negative effect on the people around them. This person can be a criminal, a corrupt person, or a malcontent (“Bad apple Idiom Definition”).

What Is the Full Saying?

The original saying goes like this: “One bad/rotten apple spoils the entire barrel.” Alternatively, “A few bad apples spoil the bunch.” Today, the expression may refer to someone who must be removed from a group before they can corrupt others or it may be used to refer to an anomaly, like one corrupt person in a group of generally upstanding citizens (“Bad apple Idiom Definition”). In terms of human beings, a rotten apple is a contemptible person (a malcontent, troublemaker, or liar) whose negative influence can bring about a group’s downfall. This is especially true if the corrupt person has considerable power within the group.

Even something as simple as one person with a negative attitude or bad behavior can impact an entire group. Usually, even if one person is acting up, others in the group will follow suit. For example, people tend to act up when a bully is around. Bullies like to make people doubt themselves. They also know how to use peer pressure to influence people to act the same way (Wonderopolis).

Who Is Responsible for This Saying?

It’s hard to say, but the earliest instance of this saying can be found in “The Cook’s Tale,” among Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (Bruce). Here’s the pertinent passage:

Uppon a proverb that seith this same worde:
‘Better ys rotten applulle out of an hurde
than for to let hem rote alle the remenaunte.’
And right so it fareth by a ryotes servaunte.

This roughly translates to:

About an old proverb, the words that say:
‘A rotten apple’s better thrown away
Before it spoils the barrel.’ That is true
When dealing with a bad apprentice too.

This means that the proverb was well known before Chaucer wrote it.

Can a Bad Apple Spoil the Whole Bunch?

In the literal sense, one rotten apple can spoil other apples. That’s because as apples age, they give off gases, that are absorbed by other fruits in their close vicinity. For example, a ripe apple will give off ethylene gas, which can cause unripe apples to ripen and spoil faster. A moldy apple can spread mold to other apples (Thomson).*

In the past, most people only opted to buy a few apples at a time. However, if they decided to buy apples in bulk, they needed to eat the apples in a timely fashion. But as Greg Nunberg points out, the rotten apples have likely not made it to the final cut before they’re sold in stores now.

How Has the Meaning of ‘a Bad Apple’ Changed Over the Years?

In 2011, Linguist Jeff Nunberg discussed the evolution of the phrase “One bad apple spoils the bunch,” along with its variants. Today, people often use the term “one bad apple” or “a few bad apples” to refer to rogue cops, corrupt financial officers, soldiers guilty of misconduct, etc. The meaning of the phrase has been flipped on its head and the change may have started in 1970 when The Osmond Brothers released “One Bad Apple (Don’t Spoil the Whole Bunch, Girl).”

What Do I Think of This Proverb?

Let’s look at the quote at the top of the post again. When I’ve heard or read something like it, either the person making the statement was defending police officers, a group of kids, or soldiers in general in the face of soldiers caught committing crimes against humanity. In each case, the speaker was overlooking the effects that even a few bad individuals could have on groups of people, including the general populace.

Again, like a rotten apple will infect a bunch of good apples, a bad person can corrupt the group they’re a part of. However, in the case of police officers and dishonorable soldiers, we must look at the barrel itself (Holloway).

Today’s police officers work in a system that began as slave patrols. In the late 1600s, white citizens were encouraged to round up escaped slaves and return them to their masters. Currently, officers work mainly to protect the property of capitalizes and to uphold the established (white supremacist) order. And to make matters worse, cops guilty of abuses tend to get off even with numerous complaints or be shuffled to other police departments. The system is designed to allow officers to literally get away with murder while the brunt of the punishment is handed out to the poor, people of color, and just about anyone else who is truly vulnerable.

Also, within police departments, “good cops” are routinely rooted out. They are trained to shoot to kill and to forget any de-escalation techniques they may have been taught in the police academy.

Additionally, when cops are challenged on their poor behavior, they act out like spoiled children, to put it mildly. Since these protests began, there have been numerous instances of police hitting peaceful protesters with batons and rubber bullets, spraying protesters with pepper spray, arresting them, and hitting them with tear gas, a chemical weapon banned in many war zones. Recently, in Portland, Oregon, federal agents in unmarked cars and no IDs have disappeared people without so much as probable cause.

Can this system be reformed and is this just an instance of bad apples? No to both.

What Is the Solution to Modern-Day Policing?

First, we need to have a real discussion about police brutality and its social effects while addressing the fears of people who may know people in law enforcement.

In 2016, NPR’s Robert Siegel interviewed Chenjerai Kumanyika, a professor at Clemson University in South Carolina. The two talked about policing and how the professor addressed the issues of race and policing with his students. Since most of Kumanyika’s students were while and many had family members in law enforcement, the professor tended to avoid those topics. However, the shootings in Oklahoma and Charlotte showed the professor that he had no choice but to address those topics in class.

Kumanyika admitted that he had difficulties talking about police brutality with his white students because they felt compelled to defend the individuals in law enforcement that they knew. However, the professor found that he could make some progress by using the angles of shared interests and systems. Although police officers, like the people they meet and arrest, are human beings, those officers represent a system and it is that system that needs to be examined and changed.

Kumanyika offered some solutions, like taking guns away from officers that need to deal with situations that should not require guns. That would decrease the dangers for cops and civilians alike.

There are many other solutions out there, like demilitarizing the police and shifting budgets to health care and social work. The bottom line is that the current system needs to be dismantled and replaced with something that protects the vulnerable and puts human life above money and property.

A Note About This Blog

Sorry to say, but this will be the last Famous Sayings post for a while. I have not made a lot of these this year, but I have quite a bit of catching up to do. I will have to update my 2020 Elections series while making note of how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected many races and I’m getting ready to make videos tied to this blog. Some of the videos will be tied to this election, but there are other videos tied to some of the posts I already made here. I’ll keep you posted via social media and on the home page as I make progress.


When storing produce, you must be careful because they can all give off gases and cause different types of produce to ripen and age early. Additionally, as Julie R Thomson points out, make sure you store the right fruits together and to avoid washing fruits before storing them in the refrigerator.

Works Cited

“a bad apple.” The Free Dictionary. Farlex, Inc., https://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/a+bad+apple. Accessed 19 July 2020.

“Bad apple Idiom Definition.” Grammarist, https://grammarist.com/idiom/bad-apple/. Accessed 19 July 2020.

“Bad apple.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/bad%20apple. Accessed 31 May 2020. Accessed 14 June 2020.

Bruce, Elyse. “One Bad Apple Spoils The Whole Barrel.” Idiomation, 27 March 2013, https://idiomation.wordpress.com/2013/03/27/one-bad-apple-spoils-the-whole-barrel/. Accessed 19 July 2020.

“Can One Bad Apple Spoil the Bunch?” Wonderopolis, https://www.wonderopolis.org/wonder/can-one-bad-apple-spoil-the-bunch. Accessed 19 July 2020.

Holloway, Kali. “This Isn’t a Few Bad Apples. The Police Are Rotten to the Core.” The Daily Beast, 31 May 2020, Updated 1 June 2020, https://www.thedailybeast.com/this-isnt-a-few-bad-apples-the-police-are-rotten-to-the-core. Accessed 19 July 2020.

Nunberg, Greg. “Bad Apple Proverbs: There’s One In Every Bunch.” National Public Radio (NPR), 9 May 2011, https://www.npr.org/2011/05/09/136017612/bad-apple-proverbs-theres-one-in-every-bunch. Accessed 19 July 2020.

“On Race And The Police: A Few Bad Apples Or Systemic Failure?” National Public Radio (NPR), 26 September 2016, https://www.npr.org/2016/09/26/495523392/on-race-and-the-police-a-few-bad-apples-or-systemic-failure. Accessed 19 July 2020.

Thomson, Julie R. “Can One Bad Apple Really Spoil A Whole Barrel? We Found Out.” HuffPost, 13 July 2016, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/bad-apples-rotten-good-ones_n_5784f23ee4b0ed2111d783ff. Accessed 19 July 2020.

Have any thoughts on the subject? Time’s yours.

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