Why Did ‘Bananas’, ‘Nuts’ and ‘Crackers’ Become Shorthand for ‘Crazy’?

Thursday May 24, 2018 Written by Smith

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In this fascinating Atlas Obscura story, writer Dan Nosowitz takes a deep dive into the history of words in an attempt to find out why these three foods became synonymous with being mentally unwell. 'We’re... not examining the history of the way people talk about mental illness' he writes.

'What we’re doing is looking at a linguistic blip: How did three, and only three, food-related terms become shorthand for mental illness?'

How indeed? Turns out, there are theories galore. One idea was that the word 'banana' comes from the West African language Wolof. Some sources suggest that back in 1910, the crazy banana meaning derived from the phrase “banana oil,” which, in flapper slang, meant “nonsense”. Nosowitz writes, 'Possibly it’s related to “snake oil,” but I suspect it’s also because the word “banana,” coming from a language that has not given English very many words, sounds unusual to the ears of English speakers.' Other theorists suggest that the link could have come from the manic excitement that monkeys display when presented with a bunch. 

And nuts? Well, as a hard-shelled fruit, Nosowitz suggests it's pretty obvious how the word “nut” could be applied to the human skull. 'To be “nuts about” someone, or something, means that thoughts about that person are thoroughly embedded in your head.' The definition dates back as early as 1785. The link between nuts and crazy was possibly first made in 1908 via a newspaper comic strip. Nosowitz suggests that 'to be “off one’s nut” meant to be separated from your head, and thus your senses. That eventually was shortened to the current use, in which someone can simply be “nuts.”'

And crackers – does that derive from the hard-baked crispbread or the Christmas noisemaking cylinders? Or is it from the adjective, cracked, which denotes being slightly but not completely broken? Nosowitz writes: 'Cracked, in most senses, means appearing almost whole, but in fact being broken. Until very recently – and, in many cases, still today – this was a pretty common understanding of mental illness, if a wildly incorrect and insensitive one.'

Three small words, that each reveal so much about a pervasive, long-standing inability to properly name, and therefore perhaps accurately conceptualise and understand, the many different forms of mental illness. 

Read the full article here