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.