Go Bananas

Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana. (Groucho Marx)

Dear Word Detective: Recently I came across a video doing a parody report on a football game using computer-generated images (don’t ask me how I did; the internet is a strange place). At one point it mentioned the crowd “going bananas,” and then humorously turned the CGI crowd into bananas, except for one guy, who then turned around and freaked out that everyone else had turned into bananas. Anyway, it got me thinking about the origin of that phrase. I searched your website and didn’t find it, so I figured I’d pose the question. Since I don’t know of there being anything inherently crazy about bananas, my intuition was that it’s a variation on “going ape,” but I would like to know the definitive answer (if there is one). — Tom.

Yes, the internet is indeed a strange place, and, coincidentally, it seems to have pretty much demolished the likelihood of finding a definitive answer to anything. It’s like the Tragedy of the Commons in reverse, where, instead of being stripped clean, the Commons has become a ginormous junk shop. Yeah, there’s good stuff in there, but there are no reliable maps and you’re gonna need a very big shovel.

As a first step in getting a grip on this notoriously slippery subject, I think we should start with the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of “banana,” which sounds curiously like an advertisement: “The fruit of [the banana tree], growing in clusters of angular, finger-like berries, containing within their rind a luscious and highly nutritious pulp.” “Luscious”? Uh, ok. The word “banana” itself comes from the word for the fruit in a West African language (most likely Wolof). Bananas were first imported into Europe by Portuguese and Spanish explorers in the 16th century.

Of course, the banana itself is a wondrous thing in all its culinary forms; an extended passage near the beginning of Thomas Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow details a sumptuous banana-based breakfast that includes banana waffles with banana syrup, banana omelets, banana croissants and even fermented banana mead. But bananas have also provided a variety of metaphors and figures of speech. To slip and fall after stepping on a banana peel has been a standard comedy trope at least since the early 20th century. “Banana oil” has meant “nonsense” or “lunacy” since the 1920s (“This is pure banana oil. It is not like you to … gibber.” P.G. Wodehouse, 1927). “Banana Republic,” before it was a mall clothing store, was a derogatory term for a small country, usually in Central America, producing fruit as its primary export. “Banana” was also early 20th century theater slang for a member of a comedy act, usually ranked in importance as “top banana,” “second banana,” etc., said to be drawn from a routine where several comedians attempt to share a single banana. “Top banana,” “second banana,” etc., went on to become slang for ranks in any hierarchical organization (“I almost signed on a few months ago as fifth banana at NewsCenter 4.” 1977).

The origin of “going bananas” or simply “bananas” meaning “insane” is uncertain, but it seems to have first appeared in the mid-20th century. It may well be based on “going ape,” given the legendary enthusiasm of monkeys for bananas, or it might simply employ the bright yellow “banana” as a symbol of silliness and simple-mindedness. My money is on the “go ape” theory, especially given the centrality of monkeys and apes to US popular culture in the 20th century.

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