Dan Smith
Real world idioms: "bad apple," "one bad apple in a barrel spoils all the rest"
I thought of this one, because it's currently being used frequently in the US news. However, I'm going to avoid any reference to current events.

This idiom is very common. Further, it is the best way to describe a certain kind of situation. Unlike other idioms this is one that a foreign speaker <em>can</em> use when it's appropriate. It's not slang, but it is colloquial and informal.

The reference is to a saying, "One bad apple in a barrel spoils all the rest."

This is literally true of apples and other fruit. A common reason why apples spoil and rot is that mold growing on them. Mold spreads. If one apple gets moldy, the apple next to it will get moldy. Eventually they will all get moldy. However, if the moldy apple or apples are spotted quickly and removed, the rest can be saved.

The saying is used figuratively. It is used to refer to corruption or misconduct within an organization. Suppose one person is taking bribes. If he is not stopped, his colleague may decide that bribery is normal, and start taking them too. Soon there is corruption throughout the whole organization.

The "bad apples" metaphor suggests that the organization can be saved, if those in charge can quickly spot and remove the "bad apples."

When an incident of misconduct occurs, those who support the organization, using formal language, might say "We should not judge the organization by the actions of a few." Privately and informally, they might say "So-and-so was a bad apple and should have been fired years ago."

Those who distrust the organization are likely to say "No, this isn't a case of 'a few bad apples.' There is a systemic problem. It can't be fixed by removing the bad apples."
Jun 11, 2020 5:55 PM
Comments · 12
I've always heard the idiom as "One bad apple spoils the whole bunch".

The expression was used by preachers/priests to warn people that one sinner could influence or affect the other people.

June 13, 2020
"Thank you Dan, I just wanted to add that the rot often starts at the top." Indeed. In the US there is a saying about this, but it is <em>not very common</em>. It is: "A fish rots from the head down."

It is, of course, a retort "it's just a few bad apples." The implication of "a few bad apples" is that the leadership is OK and the organization itself will be fine when the bad apples are removed, while "a fish rots from the head down" means no, you do not have a corrupt organization unless you have corrupt leadership.

Thus:
Person A: "It's just a few bad apples."
Person B: "No, a fish rots from the head down."

I'm happy to say I don't have enough experience with rotting fish to know whether this is literally true!
June 12, 2020
Hi Dan,
In a context you said, we (Russians) often say "Fish rots from its head". We have a similar saying "A spoon of tar in a barrel of honey", but it more likely means "to spoil something on purpose", to toss a bad apple into a barrel of good ones. Also we say "any family has a bad son".
June 12, 2020
Thank you Dan, I just wanted to add that the rot often starts at the top.
June 12, 2020
Thanks for sharing, Dan!!

We have a similar saying in our country too.
It isn't the literal translation of the English version, but the meaning is the same.

I love idioms and guessing their meaning! They're interesting. :)
June 12, 2020
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Dan Smith
Language Skills
English, Spanish
Learning Language
Spanish