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Banana

If it were not such a serious subject, and such a terrible joke, I might be tempted to say that the press last week went bananas over alarming reports of the fungal diseases that are threatening to do to the world’s producers of bananas what the potato blight did to Ireland 150 years ago.

The word itself presents no etymological conundrum. We know that the fruit was encountered by European explorers investigating the West coast of Africa around the middle of the sixteenth century. Spanish and Portuguese sailors came across them in local ports and borrowed the name from one of a set of related local languages — we’re not quite sure which one, but probably Mandingo or Wolof. Some say the Arabs imported the fruit to Africa from India, and that they named it after their word for a finger.

The poor banana has often been a subject of humour. Its shape is risible, its colour ludicrous, and its name, with that repeated syllable, sounds irretrievably childish. A quick look at any good dictionary of slang will show the great range of applications of the word.

Among others, banana has been used as an obvious slang term for the penis (and also for a dollar, for less obvious reasons); it was once a name for a slapstick comedian in vaudeville, leading to those evocative terms top banana for the starring act and second banana for a supporting performer or straight man. There’s banana oil for nonsense, baloney or hypocritical talk, a close relative of apple-sauce; a banana ball is one that curves in the air; a bananahead is a fool. All these are American, you will note. British examples are thinly spread, though I do remember a derisive use of bananas in the 1970s for corrupt London policemen, on the grounds that they were yellow, bent, and hung around in bunches. There’s also the childish rebuke from decades ago that one is a right ’nana.

What of to go bananas? It burst upon the world in the 1960s and became a fashionable, not to say faddish, term in the 1970s. Its heyday is over, perhaps thankfully so. But nobody seems to have any very clear idea where it came from. Was the idea of something bent at the root of it, so that a person was being driven mentally out of shape? Or was there a mental image of an over-excited ape clamouring for his daily feast? Or was it a more subtle image connected with the older phrase to go ape or even to go nuts? You can go crazy thinking about this stuff.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 1 Feb. 2003

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
This page URL: http://www.worldwidewords.org/topicalwords/tw-ban2.htm
Last modified: 1 February 2003.