The Curious Origin of the Phrase ‘Banana Republic’

 

By Dr Oliver Tearle

What is a ‘banana republic’, and where does the phrase come from? The origins of this phrase can be found in the work of a popular American writer, although his role in coining this phrase and giving it to the world is not as well-known as it should be.

Let’s take a closer look at where banana republic came from – and what this term means.

A ‘banana republic’ is, in short, a country – especially a small state – whose economy is almost entirely dependent on one commodity. This commodity is usually fruit, and the term banana republic was originally applied to countries in Central America, where bananas are grown in vast numbers before being exported around the world. And so banana republic refers to such a country whose financial prosperity (or at least stability) is dependent on this one product.

Of course, this isn’t an economically robust way for a state to function, and so the term is often applied disparagingly to other countries which are ‘at risk of becoming a banana republic’ with a weak leader’s bad economic decisions destined ‘to turn this once-great nation into a banana republic’. The term is a colloquial one (as the Oxford English Dictionary notes) and is also usually a derogatory one. You don’t want your country to be a banana republic if you want it to be financially stable.

What is the history of this phrase, and where did it originate?

The OED contains two citations for banana republic, the earlier of which is from 1935. In New York’s Esquire magazine, we find the following sentence from July 1935: ‘We strung along with Major Brown on the inhuman aspects of war in the banana republics.’

But although this is the earliest citation for the phrase given in the OED, this 1935 quotation is not the very first instance of the term being used.

Instead, we need to go back more than thirty years before that Esquire article, to 1904, and a book called Cabbages and Kings.

The author of this book was ‘O. Henry’, whose real name was William Sydney Porter (1862-1910). O. Henry is now best-remembered for his short stories. He was a master of the short tale (most of his stories are only five or six pages in length) which has a surprise twist ending. There’s a very affordable edition of 100 of his selected stories available from Wordsworth Editions, which is well worth getting hold of.

Cabbages and Kings is a short-story collection … kind of. It’s also a novel … kind of. The novel is essentially a group of interlinked short stories, set in a fictitious Central American country called the Republic of Anchuria.

The Republic of Anchuria. In Central America. You can see where this is going …

In Cabbages and Kings, O. Henry’s narrator tells us:

In the constitution of this small, maritime banana republic was a forgotten section that provided for the maintenance of a navy. This provision – with many other wiser ones – had lain inert since the establishment of the republic. Anchuria had no navy and had no use for one. It was characteristic of Don Sabas – a man at once merry, learned, whimsical and audacious – that he should have disturbed the dust of this musty and sleeping statute to increase the humour of the world by so much as a smile from his indulgent colleagues.

This inaugural use of the phrase banana republic makes it clear that the emphasis is on a small state which is not exactly a big player on the economic world stage.

Cabbages and Kings was inspired by O. Henry’s own experiences in Honduras in the late 1890s. Indeed, we can detect a definite echo of ‘Honduras’ in ‘Anchuria’ (the old name for a north-eastern region of China, Manchuria, was doubtless also an influence on the formation of the fictional country’s name).

O. Henry had fled to Honduras from the United States following embezzlement charges levelled at him; he spent six months living in the Central American country, in 1896-7, before returning to the US to face trial and, later, imprisonment.

Nowadays, alongside Cabbages and Kings, O. Henry is remembered for a number of his short stories with twist endings, such as ‘The Gift of the Magi’ and ‘Mammon and the Archer’. But his role in coining the phrase banana republic should be remembered alongside these other achievements.