When we say this phrase now, we usually aren’t referring to an actual apple. “An apple” symbolizes a small action that will promote good health, so we don’t become sick and have to see a doctor. But where did the phrase come from in the first place? Its earliest recording is found in the 1866 edition of Notes and Queries magazines, which says it is a Pembrokeshire proverb. The full saying is: “Eat an apple on going to bed, and you’ll keep a doctor from earning his bread.”
As time went on, different versions of the saying popped up. In 1913, Elizabeth Wright listed it in the “Devonian dialect,” or West Country English, which includes Cornwall and Devon: “Ait a happle avore gwain to bed, An’ you’ll make the doctor beg his bread.” Wright translates that into the version we know today: “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.”
Funnily enough, people weren’t really eating apples during this time. Apples were nearly all very bitter and only used to make alcoholic cider. In the 19th century when America became anti-booze, the apple might have disappeared completely, but orchard owners latched to the “apple a day” slogan in the hopes of turning the apple into a health food. Now, they just had to make it taste good.
Once orchards produced sweeter fruit, people began giving them as gifts, specifically to teachers. Teachers today don’t make nearly enough money, and it was the same back in the frontier days. Teachers often depended on students and their families for food and lodging, so giving apples was common. The trend continued and became a symbol for attempting to get on a teacher’s good side. An “apple-polisher” is now another way of calling someone a brown-noser.
Apples do have a lot of health benefits and are full of antioxidants and fiber. They might help reduce the risk of cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. However, literally eating an apple a day isn’t enough to keep the doctor today, so be sure to make another small, consistent changes to keep your body and mind strong and healthy.