The expression ‘apple pie order’ is used to refer to something being perfectly neat and tidy. For example, we might say a person who keeps their kitchen clean and perfectly organized keeps their kitchen in apple pie order. How did this phrase originate? What does being neat and orderly have to do with apple pie? There are at least four explanations for the origin of this expression. As we shall, none of them are entirely satisfactory.
The easiest explanation for apple pie order would seem to be that it is directly related to making apple pies. Therefore, it has long been suggested that the phrase came about as an allusion to how early American housewives would make their apple pies by placing the thin slices of apples in a very fancy and precise geometrical pattern, taking care to place each piece of apple just so.
This would seem to be a lot of work being that the apples are then covered by the top piece of dough. Alternatively then, it is suggested that the expression refers to baking a number of pies and placing them in very neat and precise rows on shelves.
Since the expression seems to be British in origin, instead of American, dating back to at least the early 1800s, neither version works well.
The earliest known printed evidence for use of the expression apple-pie order appears in the journals of a British sailor named Thomas Pasley, dated 1780. He wrote that the sailors were ‘clean and in apple-pie order’ on Sundays.’ Later, Sir Walter Scott wrote in a letter, ‘the children’s garden is in apple-pie order.’ This was published in the memoirs of Sir Walter Scott by John Lockhart in 1839.
Apple pie order probably did not originate literally from apple pie baking.
Instead, there are two competing theories, both having to do with French terms, one seeming more likely than the other.
One of these theories is that it is a corruption of a French term referring to neatly folded linen (napkins or sheets), nappe-pliée. The idea is that nappe-pliée became a nappe pliee which became an appe pliee which finally became an apple pie. However, there is little effort to explain how “order” came to be a part of the phrase and no real evidence exists for these intermediate steps.
The next French term suggested is cap-à-pie, meaning “head to foot.” This phrase was used by Shakespeare in Hamlet, when Horatio describes the ghost of Hamlet’s father, who was outfitted in full armor, as armed cap-à-pie. The orderliness and detail-oriented nature of military armor is used to suggest that cap-a-pie somehow became apple-pie order, in English, but, of course, no evidence exists for any intermediate forms, just as above.
Still, there are a few other suggestions, none of which hold any more weight. One is that the phrase comes from alpha beta, meaning as orderly as the letters of the alphabet. It has also been suggested that it came from the old alphabet rhyme where ‘A is for apple,’ in which all the letters of the alphabet are in apple-pie order.
Although many sources seem to assert the nappe-pliée origin of the expression, there is no real evidence to back up any of these explanations, and they all seem a bit fanciful. To date, we really do not know how this idiomatic phrase came about. Its derivation certainly is not in apple-pie order.