I called my daughter an “apple cart!”
Article by Lindsay McLoughlin
My middle daughter was happily playing with her Lego, when her older sister returned from a visit and intervened, disrupting the game – and chaos ensued. This is when I employed the old adage: “You can’t come in here and upset the apple cart!” My oldest daughter then turned to her younger sister and said “Mummy just called you an apple cart!”
Taken literally, I suppose my eldest daughter was right. She had quite cleverly “fielded” the rebuke, much to the amusement of the three of us.
However, what does “to upset the apple cart” mean and where did it come from?
What does it mean?
If you knock over a cart full of apples, you can imagine the disorder and disarray that follows. To upset the apple cart simply means to upset things and cause disorder; it is used when plans are ruined or something has been spoiled. In the case of our family Lego scene, there had been calm before the storm. (Ah… an idea for another post!)
What is the origin?
There are four schools of thought…
1. The phrase was first recorded by Jeremy Belknap in The History of New Hampshire 1788: “Adams had almost overset the apple-cart by intruding an amendment of his own fabrication on the morning of the day of ratification” [of the Constitution].
2. Romans had a similar expression: “Perii, plaustrum perculi” meaning “I am undone; I have upset my cart”.
3. Wrestlers used it as slang for throwing a man’s body – the apple cart – down. So, “down with his apple cart” meant to throw a man down.
4. A farmer in the 1800’s brought a cartload of apples to market – all neatly piled and enticingly juicy. Along came a clumsy oaf who knocked over the cart; apples were strewn everywhere, spoiling the farmer’s plan to make a killing at market.
Which origin is most likely?
The farmer at market solution has Billy Bunter-style appeal, but it is too “slapstick” and literal. It is unlikely that a longstanding expression originated from a clumsy incident. Part of the magic of proverbs is that their origins are not readily available through a convenient story.
The Roman version holds water, as they certainly used wagons for transport. They ate plenty of fruit, so the apples could have been added to the cart over time. I am not a great fan of wrestling, but some expressions have stemmed from specific activities. These two solutions are feasible, but seem unlikely.
For me, the origin of a proverb usually resonates from a historical perspective and, once explained, makes sense to the reader. If I was a betting girl, I would lay my chips on number 1; the odds are stacked in Jeremy Belknap’s favour. He recorded that Adams “spoiled” the accepted order of things on the morning of the ratification of the Constitution, by introducing a new amendment, thus upsetting the proverbial apple cart. It makes perfect sense.
So, if my instincts are right, Jeremy Belknap’s record of Adams’ intervention, gave rise to an expression that has stood the test of time. It has also travelled; it was used in my very own sitting room in a small UK town, some 225 years later, as a gentle – and amusing – parental rebuke.
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Want to know about all my hats? I am mum to 3 brilliant little girls who are full of life and fun; wife to a wonderfully kind and supportive man with the patience of a saint; proofreader/editor/copywriter for all things marketing-related; host parent to foreign students on summer language holidays and full academic years; student advisor to foreign students in other host families; clerk to governors to 3 full governing bodies; landlady to rowers visiting Henley Royal Regatta.
It’s all go at McLoughlin Mansions. I love the pace of my life and the rise and fall of all of these activities according to the time of year. Luckily all of the above do not happen simultaneously!