“Comparing Apples to Oranges” – Phrase Origin

The phrase “comparing apples to oranges” is one of those phrases we hear often. Moreover, many variations of this phrase involving different fruits are present worldwide. Still, many people wonder where the phrase comes from and why somebody would compare apples and oranges.

The origin of the phrase “comparing apples to oranges” is from the 17th century and was a variation on “comparing apples and oysters.” Over time, oysters were replaced by oranges, but the meaning remains the same–comparing something incomparable. 

This article will explain everything you always wanted to know about the phrase comparing apples to oranges, including its modern meaning, origin, and variations. 

“Comparing Apples to Oranges” Meaning

The phrase “comparing apples to oranges” is a rare example of a phrase’s meaning that has remained unchanged since its origin. As we’ll see later, apples weren’t compared to oranges when the phrase first appeared. Still, the meaning didn’t change.

If you compare apples with oranges, you are comparing two things that cannot be compared. So, it’s all about how much something’s comparable. Once you reach the top limit where something is so vastly different that you simply can’t compare it, it’s time to use “comparing apples to oranges.”

This meaning has stuck with this phrase since the beginning, but it’s certainly odd why apples and oranges couldn’t be compared, given that they’re both fruit types. 

In 2000, James Barone did precisely that; he compared these two fruits. It turns out they’re not that different. After all, they’re both sweet, round, and nutritious. Yet, we still connect this comparison to something impossible. 

A note: the phrase “comparing apples to oranges” is also an idiom, so don’t be confused when you see that in connection with this phrase. Idioms are words often used in phrases that carry a deeper, (usually) metaphorical meaning rather than a literal one. This means that when we compare apples and oranges, we’re doing it metaphorically. 

How to Use the Phrase “Comparing Apples to Oranges”

Before you run into somebody who’s very finicky about grammar and the correct usage of words and phrases, it’s best that we cover a few points about this particular idiom. 

Firstly, people often get confused about the correct form of the phrase. People often wonder if it’s “comparing apples to oranges” or “comparing apples and oranges.” The phrase “comparing apples to oranges” is much more common, and most dictionaries will use this form. 

However, the version with “and” has also entered people’s vocabulary, and we often use both versions interchangeably. Moreover, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, “comparing apples with oranges” is also correct. This means that you don’t have to worry about which version is correct because you’re bound to hear all three of them (if not more).

Furthermore, since this phrase is an idiom, it means that the meaning of the whole phrase wouldn’t exist if we didn’t have the words apples and oranges in it. So, even if you switch the words—”comparing oranges to apples”—it won’t carry the meaning it does.

Likewise, you can’t change the two fruits and expect other people to understand what you’re trying to say. For instance, if you say “comparing grapes and watermelons,” it would technically make more sense, but nobody would understand that you’re trying to say something can’t be compared. 

Lastly, if some things seem very different but not to the point of being incomparable, then you don’t have to use this phrase. “Comparing apples and oranges” is used specifically when somebody’s trying to find something common with two or more things, but it’s simply impossible. 

Instead, you can always try to use one of these phrases:

  • Like chalk and cheese
  • Like night and day
  • To be worlds apart
  • To be on a different planet
  • To be a different kettle of fish

Examples of “Comparing Apples to Oranges” in Sentences

Now that we understand the meaning and when to use this phrase, let’s look at some practical examples in different situations:

  • John and Mark are brothers, but it’s like comparing apples and oranges with those two.
  • You can’t say Mary’s presentation was better than Jenny’s when they covered two different marketing campaigns. You’re comparing apples and oranges.
  • I’m sorry, but you’re comparing apples and oranges when you say that plays and operas are the same. 

“Comparing Apples to Oranges”: Origin

Like many other idioms, it’s difficult to confirm when and where “comparing apples and oranges” originated in spoken English. It’s even harder to pinpoint its past forms, but we do have some written records.

A written form of the phrase appears in the 17th century in Jon Ray‘s book of proverbs (published in 1670). However, Ray mentioned a slightly different version: comparing apples and oysters. Firstly, we see that the earliest version of the phrase contained and not to

Secondly, the word oysters was used instead of oranges. This makes more sense because:

  • Oysters are completely different from apples and aren’t even fruit (like oranges).
  • Oranges weren’t historically easily available in many European countries.

Another source of the original phase predates even Ray’s book of proverbs. In 1623, Shakespeare‘s plays were published, and one of the plays, The Taming of the Shrew, contained the phrase. 

The character Biondello uses the phrase ironically: As much as an apple doth an oyster (Act 4, scene 2) when Tranio states his father resembles Biondello. We can see from this example that the phrase’s meaning stayed the same, even though the word “oysters” was replaced by “oranges.”

It took several hundred years for the phrase to change its form when oranges somehow replaced oysters. We don’t know for sure when this happened exactly or why. However, we know that during the 20th century, the phrase as we know it today really took off and hasn’t changed since. 

Part of the reason is that oranges have become available in every country. Plus, it was certainly a trend to have two types of fruit compared because many countries also include other variations of this phrase with different fruits. What are some of those variations?

Other Variations of the Phrase “Comparing Apples to Oranges”

Before I mention some of the phrase variations across the globe, I should also mention two other variations in the English language. Neither of these uses the “comparing” part of the phrase.

The first variation you can use incorporates the word “mixing” instead of “comparing.” When used in an example, it looks like this: No, books and movies aren’t the same. You’re mixing apples and oranges. 

The second variation doesn’t use either mixing or comparing. Instead, you simply state: “it’s apples and oranges.” Here’s an example: Conventional and alternative medicine aren’t the same—it’s apples and oranges!

Finally, many countries, especially in Europe, have similar phrases to this one. However, these languages don’t use oranges as the second fruit in the phrase. Pears are a popular choice instead of oranges. Some Slavic languages even invert the phrase, which becomes: it’s pears and apples. 

All of this shows us that the phrase’s origin is common across many different countries, not just one. It also shows that oranges were never the number one choice for the phrase but a later addition in the English language. 

What About “Comparing Apples to Apples”?

Over time, another idiom developed in the English language: comparing apples to apples. As you might imagine, this phrase has the opposite meaning of comparing apples to oranges. It means that something or someone is comparable in that context. An example would be something like this: Mark and his brother are so similar; it’s comparing apples to apples. 

Final Thoughts

The origin of the phrase “comparing apples to oranges” goes back to the 17th century, when the phrase was first used as “comparing apples and oysters.” The phrase’s meaning has remained the same, which is comparing something that can’t be compared in any way. 

Many other countries have similar versions of this phrase, only with pears instead of oranges.