Down the Slippery Slope with Banana Republic

by Hugh Rawson

Banana republic started out around the turn of the last century as a demeaning description of various Latin American nations but has shown remarkable staying power and since been applied to countries around world, whether or not they grow bananas.

The phrase was initially pinned on Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and other small countries that were republics in name only. They tended to be politically turbulent, led by dictators and wealthy elites, themselves dominated to different degrees by foreign corporations that exploited such agricultural resources as rubber, coffee, mahogany, and, of course, bananas.

Banana republic was probably coined by the American writer William Sydney Porter, better known by his pen name, O. Henry, and was most certainly popularized by him. The earliest known example of the phrase is from “The Admiral,” one of a series of O. Henry stories published in Ainslee’s Magazine, starting in 1901: “In the constitution of the small, maritime banana republic was a forgotten section that provided for the maintenance of a navy.”

Set in the fictional nation of Anchuria, the stories drew on the author’s observations of life in Honduras, where he had fled after being charged in 1896 with embezzling funds from a Texas bank. He returned to the U.S. the following year, was convicted, and served more than three years in prison. With time on his hands while in jail, he began writing and selling short stories. The Anchurian stories, strung together in 1904 as a novel, Cabbages and Kings, were then serialized in American newspapers, thus introducing banana republic to ever wider audiences.

The disparaging phrase was soon used as a matter of course by other writers. For example, the Hutchinson (Kansas) Daily News referred in 1909 to the president of Nicaragua as “the dictator of that banana republic”; The Indianapolis Star noted in 1911 that “When Uncle Sam finally occupies the [Panama] canal, it is to be hoped that he thrashes out those banana republic disputes and sees that there is only one uprising a month,” and on the island of Jamaica, the Kingston Gleaner headlined a 1913 report on events in Costa Rica: “Latest Happenings in the Banana Republic.”

Today, the demeaning phrase has become international lingo, readily applied to nations all over the map. In the 1980 British-made film The Long Good Friday, an American mobster says about England: “This country’s in worse shape than Cuba was. It’s a banana republic!” The following year, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin complained: “What kind of talk is this, punishing Israel?  Are we a vassal state . . . Are we a banana republic?” And the hero of a Russian novel, Homo Zapiens (2002), by  Victor Pelevin, can’t understand “why it was worth exchanging an evil empire for an evil banana republic that was importing its bananas as from Finland.” Then there is Canada, derided by pundits during a constitutional crisis in 2008 as “a banana republic with snowflakes.”

And so it goes. Reporting on Europe’s debt crisis this past July 22, The New York Times quoted Daniel Gros, director of the Center for European Policy in Brussels, as saying: “Italy is a banana republic that didn’t depend so much on foreign capital in the past, but now it does and markets are less forgiving.”

Banana crops up in other derogatory phrases. For instance, to go bananas is to go crazy, a banana boat is a slow one, and banana oil is nonsense. The fruit has also found a place in political parlance: making a play on the Banana Republic clothing stores, Democrats have turned the fashion statement into an attack phrase, as noted in Safire’s Political Dictionary (2008), on “beige-clad Banana Republicans” and “Banana Republicans wearing cashmere underwear. . . living large but easy in the New Age.”

Curiously, the Banana Republic chain started out in 1978 with an African safari theme, not a Central American one. Such are the mysteries of merchandising.

And for more about the use of foods as disparagements, see the post on Food Fights.

15 thoughts on “Down the Slippery Slope with Banana Republic

    1. I thought about mentioning United Fruit Co., but this would have led to a longer digression from language into history than seemed appropriate for a blog post. One of the reasons for not starting in on the digression is that the company was not formed (through a merger of the other companies) until 1899, three years after O. Henry’s stay in Honduras. And once headed in that direction, I would have been tempted to get into the company’s modern history, following its transformation in 1984 into Chiquita Brnads International. Does anyone besides me remember singing in grade school of the song: “I’m Chiquita banana/And I’m here to say/Never put bananas in the refrigerator.” There, you’ve gotten me at least part way into the digression!

  1. Harry

    There are many ironies about bananas. For example, bananas account for some 40%of the fresh produce sold in American supermarkets, making the tropical fruit by far the most popular product in the green aisle . In fact, I once heard a shopper at a local farmers’ market tell a vendor, “Your stuff is beautiful! If you had bananas, I’d buy all my produce here.” [Vendors at local farmers’ markets are allowed to sell only locally sourced foods,]

    Like cane sugar, coffee, cocoa, and other tropical crops, trade in bananas is encumbered by all sorts of colonial and neo-colonial treaties. Bananas from Jamaica go to Britain, those from Costa Rica go to the US, those from Martinique go to France. This situation is very sad for the growers.

    I once met an economist from Barbados who insisted that local farmers could double their incomes by switching from cane to sea island cotton (a variety that grows very well on Barbados but poorly in most other countries.) The fibers are unusually long and create a premium fabric and therefore command a premium prices. They could also free themselves from depending on prices established by EU, those is very scary to West Indian authorities.The handful that tried cotton made a fortune, but most gowers opted to stick to bananas.

    Myself, I’d rather enjoy bananas.

  2. Sobreira

    Spanish has the same idiom, but the modificator has an adjective form: “república bananera”. That can be seen in the Academy Dictionary but, as usual, restricting the meaning, only for banana dependence (3rd meaning) and Latin American poor-quality or Third-world countries (4th):

    It is not said with “platanera”, the other synonym for banana, so I guess it cames into Spanish from English, and not the reverse. This idiom is used also in Galician and I guess in South American Spanish as well but, as far as I know, not in Portuguese.

    I cannot fully understand the sentence “Today, the demeaning phrase has become international lingo”, as “lingo” is “a foreign language” or “a type of language that contains a lot of unusual or technical expressions”.

    I didn’t know about the agreements Harry speaks about. It’s a pity not to leave them live free. Is that the free-market policy?

    1. “Lingo” does not refer so much to a foreign language as to (and this is from my old Webster’s New World Dictionary, which happens to be within easy arm reach) “language, esp., a dialect, jargon, or special vocabulary that one is not faniliar with.”
      WNW notes that it is a “humerous or disparaging term,” which agrees with the context in which I employed it. Hope this helps.

      1. sobreira

        Thanks, Hugh. As from the quoted, I was restricting me only to Cambridge definitions. Sorry, maybe I was imposing the Academic limits I criticize on myself.

    Shortly after my posting of the above piece on “banana republic,” with examples of how the phrase has been expanded to include Italy, Canada, Russia, and other non-Latin American nations, Paul Krugman applied it to the U.S. in a critique in his New York Times column on Aug. 1 of the deal to raise the federal debt ceiling. The deal in his opinion was a disaster that would “make America’s long-run deficit problem worse, not better, and . . . take America a long way down the road the banana-republic status.”

  4. Justin

    Hugh, does food ever get to be used in a flattering sense? Crackers, fruits, nuts, bananas, pie-eyed – all derogatory. You can be a good apple or a smart cookie, but those seem to rely on their accompanying adjective; just being an apple or a cookie is of dubious value. Is there a comestible equivalent of lionhearted?

      1. Harry

        Plump, ripe fruit is used in a number of positive terms. A beloved person is often called “the apple of your eye.” A prestigious and/or rewarding job is “a plum assignment.” If life is treating you well, you can say, “Everything is peachy.” (Though this can also have an ironic twist.) Especially in America, “apple pie” refers to wholesome, solid, traditional institutions. Here again, it can be used with an ironic twist, referring to rigidly conventional, out-dated or unimaginative thinking. And while it’s not a fruit, “Hot dog!” is an interjection expressing enthusiastic approval.

  5. Women are often flattered (?) by being referred to as toothsome delicacies, e.g., sweetie, sweetie pie, honey, peaches, cupcake, lambchop, sugar, and so on. Tart, now disparaging, was an endearment in the mid-nineteenth century. Shakespeare also used a comestible metaphor for an attractive woman in Antony and Cleopatra a couple of times: “He will to his Egyptian dish again” and “A woman is a dish for the gods, if the devil dress her not.”…Off-hand, I can’t come up with a comestible equivalent of lionhearted. Will have to think about that one and will let you know if I come up with anything.

  6. cynthia

    Strange as it sounds, I’ve been fascinated by bananas’ place in the world ever since Eli Black committed suicide in 1975 by jumping from his Pan Am building office window. I think I’d transitioned from Dun’s to TYC by then but, perhaps, not quite. Such a dramatic suicide would catch anyone’s imagination. But still, I couldn’t understand why anyone would jump over bananas. And what is bananas’ mystique, anyway? Corporate cut-throating over sugar I can understand, but bananas? It surprises that they surpass apples at American supermarkets.

    I really enjoyed reading this entry…and the replies to it!

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