There’s something about those duplicated syllables and vowels that just makes it a fun word to say, am I right? But also a little strange. Where did this word even come from??
I was expecting some interesting etymology to match the fruit’s interesting history, but it’s a bit mysterious. What we know is that the fruit was introduced to Africa in pre-history, and that West African dialects called the fruit–you guessed it–banana. We know that Spanish and/or Portuguese explorers kept the name for the word when they began transporting the fruit to Europe in the 1510s, and that English speakers were using the same name for it in the 1590s. Why did those original people call it that? Big ol’ shrug.
But there are some interesting pieces on the various phrases using banana that are fun.
First, its casing. Banana-skin came first, in 1851, and was followed with banana-peel in 1874. Here’s the funny thing–you know all those TV or cartoon episodes with people slipping on banana peels? Real thing! People really did leave the peels on the streets, and as they rotted they got slippery and resulted in falls. It was a huge nuisance in cities…and even an insurance scam in the 1890s that targeted streetcar lines! Who knew?
The wonderful invention of a banana split brightened humanity’s existence by 1901 (I’m not biased, LOL). Banana oil was used for the chemical “essence of banana” (kinda like extract) by 1873 but by 1910 was also used to mean “nonsense.” In the 1950s, banana began to be used as a word for a comedian, which is probably what led to bananas as a term for “crazy” in the 1960s.
But let’s hop back to that extract or artificial flavoring for a few “did you know?”s. Did you know that banana flavoring was one of the very first artificial flavors? And while we today think of that flavor as “fake banana,” it’s in fact true banana–the flavor was made to imitate bananas of the time. Since then, banana trees have been modified and all been cloned from a single source–that’s why every banana tastes the same (and why when disease hits the trees it’s potentially catastrophic!). So our bananas today are actually just a derivative of original bananas, and that “fake” flavor is really “historically accurate banana.” 😉
And what about banana republics? This was a term used to refer to the Central American countries whose economies were entirely dependent on banana cultivation, which was a very big deal in the early 1900s. Rich American and British entrepreneurs set up plantations that ended up more or less controlling whole countries by being the only revenue source around. Sketchy. And it’s also why bananas are one of the core fruits today.