What is the origin of ‘banana’?
Banana appears to be a tropical African word, but its lexical origins represent only a single stage in the fruit’s worldwide wanderings before it reached English.
It probably first grew in Southeast Asia, and did not make a big impact elsewhere until the early Islamic period when it was brought from India to the Middle East, and thence to Africa. The odd banana had turned up in Europe before that, of course, but only as an exotic rarity: in ancient Rome, for instance, it had to make do with borrowing the name of the fig (a notion which lived on in the early French term for ‘banana’, figue du paradis). Spanish and Portuguese colonists took the banana with them across the Atlantic from Africa to the Americas, and along with it they brought its African name, banana, apparently a word from one of the languages of the Congo area (it has been speculated that it derives ultimately from Arabic banana ‘finger, toe’, an origin which would be echoed in the English term hand for a bunch of bananas, and serves as a reminder that many varieties of banana are quite small, not like the monstrous articles standardly imported into Britain).
The banana comes to Britain
The first banana to reach Britain came from Bermuda in 1633, and was sold in the shop of the herbalist Thomas Johnson, but its name had been known to the British (often in the form bonana or bonano, which in Spanish is strictly the term for the ‘banana tree’) for a good forty years before that. To begin with, bananas were generally not eaten raw, but cooked in tarts and dumplings.
The colloquial use of bananas for ‘mad, crazy’ is a surprisingly recent development. There is an isolated record of it from the US in the 1930s meaning ‘sexually perverted, degenerate’, but the current usage seems to have originated in US college slang of the mid to late 1960s. It is not clear how it arose. Some connection has been suggested with the earlier slang term banana oil ‘nonsense’, which dates from the 1920s, but since the origins of that too are unknown, the suggestion only pushes the mystery one stage further back.
Since the end of the nineteenth century Bananaland has been used by Australians as a colloquial and not altogether complimentary name for Queensland, a state where the banana is a key crop. Even less complimentary is banana republic, a term coined in the 1930s for small volatile states of the American tropics (from their economic dependence on the export of bananas).
This is an amended excerpt from John Ayto’s The Diner’s Dictionary: Word origins of food and drink. The full extract is available online at Oxford Reference.