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I wanted to know how and when the word "bananas" came to be associated with "crazy". There was nothing detailed on Etymonline, but thanks to OED, I came to know that this book is the origin of this usage.

I haven't been able to figure out the reason behind the usage, though. Is it arbitrary? Is it a random usage made popular by others, like videos that go viral on social networks?

PS: Incidentally, the use of "jerk" to mean a fool also originates from the same text.

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The complete opposite is also true in cases like second banana and top banana. –  Noah Jul 15 '12 at 14:19
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The complete OED quote from that book ("He's bananas, he's sexually perverted; a degenerate.") makes me wonder if it's being used to mean "bent." –  Micah Jul 15 '12 at 16:08
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Maybe this sense of "go bananas" is related to "go ape". –  GEdgar Jul 15 '12 at 20:11
    
englishdaily626.com/slang.php?054 - this confirms the answer I've given below. (Assuming the link can be trusted, that is :P) –  asymptotically Jul 24 '12 at 16:31

6 Answers 6

up vote 27 down vote accepted
+50

The 1935 definition in Albin Jay Pollock's The Underworld Speaks (apparently published by the FBI to help people spot gangsters by their speech) is:

He's bananas, he's sexually perverted; a degenerate.

This may be alluding to bent, the shape of a banana.

Bent is 1914 US criminal slang meaning dishonest or crooked, and 1930 US slang meaning illegal or stolen.

The eccentric, perverted or homosexual meaning of bent may be originally UK slang; it appears in 1930 in Brophy and Partridge's Songs and slang of the British soldier: 1914-1918 meaning spoiled or ruined. It soon after appears in 1942's The American thesaurus of slang: a complete reference book of colloquial speech in the definition for eccentric: "Balmy, bats, bent, [etc.]".

Another 1833 US slang meaning of bent is to intoxicated with alcohol or drugs.

The 1935 bananas is in brackets in the OED, so they're not convinced it is the same meaning.


Etymonline says the crazy meaning is much later: 1968. This year matches with the OED's third quotation from the University of South Dakota's Current Slang:

Bananas, adj., excited and upset; ‘wild’.—College students, both sexes, Kentucky.—I'd say it, but everyone would just go bananas.

The OED's second quotation is from a 1956 Ohio newspaper caption:

We heard the police broadcast!! They say you're bananas!!

But it's hard to gauge the exact meaning without seeing the picture.


Edit: I found a possible example of crazy bananas earlier than 1968 in The Spokesman-Review (Jun 22, 1962):

I refer to the taunt, suspenseful, real-life drama NBC brought us from Oakmount Country Club over the weekend - the National Open. Compared to it, Bonanza is bananas, and Dr Bon Casey is just another pill-roll.

This Ngram suggests this meaning really took off in the early seventies:

bananas

Turning to slang dictionaries, The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms (1997) says of go bananas:

According to the lexicographer J. E. Lighter, this expression may allude to the similar go ape, in that apes and other primates are closely associated with eating bananas.

However, The Concise New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (2007) says bananas (madly excited; mad; behaving oddly) is from 1957 and derives from banana oil (nonsense; persuasive talk) from 1924.

Contemporary synonyms are horsefeathers and appleseauce. The origins of banana oil are also unknown, but The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms (1997) says it's possibly variation on snake oil (quack medicine) extended to mean nonsense.

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Good answer gets my vote. Partridge is one of my favoured sources. –  Qube Jul 24 '12 at 12:05
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Having checked my 2002 copy of Partridge's Dictionary of Slang, I see that the third definition under 'banana' states 'a foolish person; a softie since ca. 1950. Ex the softness of a ripe banana'. 'go bananas' dates from the US in 1974 (partially) and 1976 (widely). –  Qube Jul 24 '12 at 20:46
    
Aaand now bananas sounds weird. –  NothingsImpossible Mar 8 at 10:49

Of what I remember, it's because of how crazy monkeys become when they see bananas.

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This evening as I was watching my young children "go bananas" after eating chocolate, I remembered this question and wondered whether bananas have a similar effect on monkeys, and whether this could be the origin of the term. –  JAM Jul 21 '12 at 2:46

Eric Partridge's Dictionary of the underworld mentions an earlier occurrence (1933) of the word meaning "sexually perverted": Ersine's Underworld and Prison Slang . Partridge also mentions the song Yes, we Have No Bananas (1920's).
Wikipedia gives a possible other origin of the phrase, mentioning cartoonist Thomas A. Dorgan as popularizing the phrase.
Not being a native English speaker I find it difficult to make a link between the phrase Yes, we have no bananas and bananas meaning crazy.
This explanation is more satisfying to my mind: "during the late 1960s rumors spread across university campuses that roasted banana peels had psychedelic properties"

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In some languages, when someone says something like "You don't have any bananas?", it's necessary to agree with the speaker and say "Yes, we have no bananas". In English, we agree with the grammar and say "No, we {have no / don't have any} bananas". –  user21497 Jul 16 '12 at 1:56

There are some very nice references here and I don't mean to discredit them but rather show an opposing opinion (to the prevailing one of the sexual origin) possibly in part because I'm not completely convinced. So, biased I may be, I present the following website, which may lack creditably:

http://www.englishdaily626.com/slang.php?054

It says that the term originates from giving a group apes a bunch of bananas and watching them go crazy eating them with "tremendous enthusiasm."

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I don't know if it is related, but when I was growing up in Glasgow, a very common expression was: "Do you think I just got off the banana boat." It means "do you think I am stupid or gullible."

Etymologically, it is horribly racist. Glasgow was a major port for the British Empire, and the implication was someone who got off a boat delivering bananas, presumably from Africa or the Caribbean, was stupid or gullible. Perhaps due to a stereo type against black people, or perhaps due to a stereotype against people "from the colonies."

I have no idea if it is related, but someone else might have some thoughts on this.

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Not being from Glasgow I couldn't definitively disagree with you, but in the US we have similar phrases ("just fell off the turnip truck", etc.) and they don't have anything to do with race or culture, but rather have to do with one having just arrived and not understanding local societal norms. –  Ben Collins Jul 19 '12 at 16:22
    
Partridge (again) in the Dic of Slang has 'banana boat' as an invasion boat ca. 1943+. An aircraft carrier 1940; and then later in the 1950s as a disparaging innuendo of illegal entry by, e.g. a West Indian in to Britain. –  Qube Jul 24 '12 at 20:49
    
@Qube: Both the invasion and immigration ships are likely the same thing: cheap, shallow-draughted ships used by fruit companies to collect bananas from riverside plantations, later requisitioned during WWII. wordsonbooks.blogspot.com/2012/05/twelve-desperate-miles.html en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Banana_boat_(ship) –  Hugo Jul 25 '12 at 14:23

It might be related to Banana Republic.. I cannot really say for sure but then I have seen it being used for failed states/crazy form of government.

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The idiom "banana republic" originally meant very specifically "Central American dictatorship financially dependent on the export of some resource (e.g. bananas)." It is a historical allusion to the neocolonialist practices of the United Fruit Company in the middle of the 20th century. –  Zack Jul 22 '12 at 22:34

protected by Daniel Jul 20 '12 at 17:46

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