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Banana in Spanish: Two fruits, many different terms

Alejandro Navarro • Nov 15, 2023 • 4 minutes
Updated Jan 31, 2024
Banana in Spanish: Two fruits, many different terms
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It is estimated that the average person in the United States consumes twenty-seven pounds of Musa acuminata each year, or ninety per person. Your correspondent is not average, thank you very much, and gladly so. He eats about one of those per day, always when they are decidedly yellow and sometimes with a bit of peanut butter. 

What are these Musa whatever things? Glad you asked. Depending on the Spanish-speaking country where you are, the answer will differ. As usual, in English it’s a bit simpler: bananas. 

The name we share, banano, is said to come either from the Arabic word for finger, given the shape of the fruit, or the Guinean word banema which names the fruit itself. This might make more sense, given that bananas were first imported into the Canary Islands and Portugal from West Africa, and later on to other European countries and the Americas. 

Four bananas

The name banano is not used in Spain, México, Perú, Bolivia, or Chile. In those countries, they use the word plátano. When you go to supermarkets there you will find bunches of this sweet fruit that can be eaten raw labeled as such: plátanos. 

That name shares an origin with English words such as platitude, plateau and plate. This common origin, plattus in vulgar Latin, means flat or wide. A platitude is a flat statement, a plateau is a flat stretch of land, a plate is flat, unlike a bowl, which is concave. The leaves of a banana plant, which is technically considered an herb and not a tree, are wide and flat as well, and the adjective that describes these leaves became the name of the fruit.  

In many South and Central American countries, such as Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Colombia, Ecuador, Panamá, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador the name for our yellow potassium-rich friend is the same as in English: banano or banana. 

But if you go to a supermarket in some of these countries, particularly those closer to the equator or the Caribbean, you will find a similar fruit, Musa balbisiana, which is a bit bigger, with a thicker skin and edible only when cooked in the form of tostones, platanutres, chifles, mangú, mofongo, tajadas or aborrajado. In English we call it plantain. 

In places like Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, and Colombia, among others, this fruit is known as plátano, yes, the same word for banana in Spain, México, etc. There, by the way, the plantain used for cooking is usually known as plátano macho.  

Let’s simplify this a bit. Plátano and plátano macho are terms used in Spain, México, Perú, Bolivia and Chile. Plátano means banana, and where it is consumed, plátano macho means plantain. 

The name banana or banano is used in Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Colombia, Ecuador, Panamá, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador to talk about the same fruit we call banana in English. And the name plátano means plantain. 

In Venezuela, bananas are known as cambur and the word is said to come from the language spoken by the guanches, who were the indigenous inhabitants of the Canary Islands. In the DR, Puerto Rico, and the north coast of Colombia, the word for banana is guineo. 

Last, but not least, in the Spanish-speaking country of Equatorial Guinea, in Africa, they also use the word banana. 

Global yearly consumption of bananas is estimated at 100 billion units, making them the most popular fruit in the world. Their nutritional value and health benefits are widely documented. They are a good source of potassium, fiber, manganese, and vitamins B6 and C. 

A bunch of bananas in a banana tree

Bananas are originally from the region that includes the Malay Peninsula, Indonesia, the Philippines, and New Guinea. They are also one of the oldest crops in the world, believed to be about 10,000 years old. Their scientific name, Musa, may come from Antonius Musa, a Roman physician and botanist who studied this fruit and promoted its cultivation, or from the Arabic word mauz, banana. 

The clothing brand Banana Republic was started by a couple and it originally had a decidedly colonialist aesthetic. Think of the jackets, pants, shirts, and other pieces worn by explorers in Africa and the tropics, mostly while on safaris. The political term banana republic, on the other hand, was coined by the author William Sydney Porter, better known as O. Henry

While living in Honduras, Porter observed a state where bananas were the main driver of the economy, and multinational companies such as United Fruit and Chiquita controlled the government, thus leading to bad governance and a state of near chaos. 

Finally, if you hear a Colombian person saying, “Deje de bananear” they are asking you to stop wasting their time. There, bananear means to engage in some sort of negotiation without really being serious about the outcome. 

Alejandro Navarro
Alejandro Navarro

Alejandro Navarro is a former Spanish language instructor at Berges Institute.

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