May 26, 2004

Like a Rolling Stone

[This post was actually inspired by looking at a bag of apples rather than by you-know-what.]

When did people start excusing things by saying "It's just a few bad apples"? When I was a sprat, I thought the saying was something like "A few bad apples can spoil the barrel." Which is not exactly the message people send when they talk about "bad apples" these days, although it may be more accurate.

In one sense this is like "A rolling stone gathers no moss," in another sense unlike. Opinion on whether or not it's a good thing to gather no moss appears to be about evenly split. Hank Williams, Merle Haggard, Bob Dylan, and the Temptations say it isn't, Muddy Waters and by extension Mick Jagger say it is. Apparently Hank, Merle, Bob, and the Tempts have the original meaning, though being covered with moss doesn't sound very appealing to me. But in either case, the descriptive meaning is the same; those who are constantly on the move (say, visiting assistant professors) don't form lasting attachments. The only question is whether it's a good thing or a bad thing.

With "bad apples" the descriptive meaning seems to have reversed itself--at first it was that you had to be vigorous against corruption because it could spread, now it's that corruption is not that big a deal once it's discovered if only a few people were involved. What gives?

Posted by Matt Weiner at May 26, 2004 09:40 PM