Road apples


What's the meaning of the phrase 'Road apples'?

Horse dung.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Road apples'?

This American slang term for horse dung or droppings originated in the mid 20th century. Clearly, the allusion is to the appearance of horse droppings which, in shape and size at least, although hardly in colour or odour, resemble apples. The first mention of the term in print that I can find is Berrey and Van den Bark’s The American thesaurus of slang, 1942:

“Road apples, horse dung.”

The first usage of the term is likely to be rather earlier than that though as that citation is pre-dated by a reference to ‘road apple’ being used as a theatrical term. Bernard Sobel published The Theatre Handbook in 1940, in which he included a definition of a ‘road apple’ as an actor on tour. Sobel also listed many other theatrical terms which, although not widely known at the time – hence the need for his handbook, are commonplace now; for example:

Angel – a financial backer of a play
Turkey – a show that is a financial failure
Brush off – get rid of
Born in a trunk – born into a theatrical family

The theatrical use of ‘road apple’ appears to be intended to be ironic, which suggests that the ‘horse dung’ meaning of the term was already established by 1940.

Trend of road apples in printed material over time

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

Gary Martin

Writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.