Bananas, Crackers, and Nuts
April 16, 2018 7:11 AM   Subscribe

"How did three, and only three, food-related terms become shorthand for mental illness [in English]? ... There are reasons, or at least guesses, for the winding path these three terms took. But their etymologies are not related, and show just how weird and broken and non-systematic language can be. To put it in another, definitely worse way: What if….it’s language itself….that is bananas, crackers, and/or nuts?"
posted by Eyebrows McGee (50 comments total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
 
This sounds like an episode of "Learned League: Behind the Question."
posted by DrAstroZoom at 7:17 AM on April 16 [4 favorites]


There's also (nutty as a) fruitcake ... this phrase has always puzzled me.
posted by carter at 7:18 AM on April 16 [7 favorites]


that reminds me of Jimmy Buffett's song Fruitcakes, simultaneously one of his best and one of his worst songs.
posted by vogon_poet at 7:20 AM on April 16


I seem to recall there having been a (Prohibition-era?) Mafia enforcer, famed for his brutal violence, named something like Giuseppe Bonanni, which was anglicised to “Joe Bananas”. I wonder whether that could have reframed the slang word “bananas” from flapper-ese for “talking nonsense” to “gone temporarily berserk”.
posted by acb at 7:22 AM on April 16


There's also (nutty as a) fruitcake ... this phrase has always puzzled me.

Once again, America's sub-standard fruitcake lets someone down. Fruitcake should have almonds in it.
posted by zamboni at 7:23 AM on April 16 [9 favorites]




Well, my banana tree is pretty bonkers. I hacked that thing down to the ground with a machete a month ago and the new growths are almost 4 feet now. That giant root bulb is fucking nuts and jacked up an automatic sprinkler line.
posted by Burhanistan at 7:24 AM on April 16 [4 favorites]


I seem to recall there having been a (Prohibition-era?) Mafia enforcer, famed for his brutal violence, named something like Giuseppe Bonanni

According to Joseph Bonanno's Wikipedia article, the mental illness association existed before the nickname, and accordingly, Bonanno hated being called that.
Bonanno was nicknamed "Joe Bananas" by the papers, a name he despised because it implied that he was crazy; his Family was sometimes called "the Bananas family" after his nickname. A much safer nickname to use around him was "Don Peppino", a diminutive of his original Italian name.
posted by zamboni at 7:29 AM on April 16 [2 favorites]


carter: There's also (nutty as a) fruitcake ... this phrase has always puzzled me.

Perhaps it comes from the association of fruitcake with homosexuality, and the assumption that homosexuality was a mental illness?
posted by clawsoon at 7:35 AM on April 16 [4 favorites]


To be “off one’s nut” meant to be separated from your head, and thus your senses.
Having grown up fixing tractors, what I envision is a bolt becoming separated from its nut and flying off in all directions.

Anyway, this article is fishsticks.
posted by clawsoon at 7:37 AM on April 16 [6 favorites]


The article gets it slightly wrong regarding the British definition of crackers... Xmas crackers yes, but it's also a food too: the cream cracker. Which gets' shorted to 'crackers' for any similar savory or neutral biscuit you can have with cheese etc
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 7:38 AM on April 16 [5 favorites]


Hang on....

For North Americans, as a food, it is a hard, flat, savory baked good.
[...]
In the U.K., after all, it’s called a biscuit.


What? Nope, we definitely have hard, flat savoury crackers in the UK too. They're what we put our cheese on. Biscuits are sweet in the UK (cookies).
posted by atlantica at 7:43 AM on April 16 [7 favorites]


Language is complex and changes through many different mechanisms. That's a good thing. It's the opposite of "broken". It's the only way it could keep up with humans, who are also complex, and should not feel they must be simpler than they are in order to be functional.
posted by amtho at 7:48 AM on April 16 [5 favorites]


Get the crackers, Gromit!
posted by ipsative at 7:48 AM on April 16 [1 favorite]


That boy needs therapy…
posted by los pantalones del muerte at 7:53 AM on April 16 [6 favorites]


Everyone's a Fruit and Nut case (Classic 70s Brit ad, when they didn't have to worry about insulting mentally ill people)
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 7:59 AM on April 16 [1 favorite]


I remember when the Century City business area (built over the former 20th Century Fox Studios) was called Granola City because "it's full of nuts and fruits". And I regret that.
posted by oneswellfoop at 8:18 AM on April 16


I feel like the things that I have seen called "biscuits" by Brits don't necessarily correspond to things that I recognize as "crackers", even if you ignore the savory/sweet distinction. I'm not a baker or a foodie, but my instinct is that "biscuits" have more crumb to them? Maybe it's a fat-content thing? But then I'm thinking of the cheesy kind of crackers, and those definitely load up on the grease. Still, there's something textural there, I feel...
posted by inconstant at 8:19 AM on April 16


Hang on, I've just remembered graham crackers. Those I can definitely imagine being called "biscuits" for textural reasons.
posted by inconstant at 8:24 AM on April 16


Another food related UK phrase is 'one sandwich short of a picnic', though this is only one of many similar phrases that take a similar form with the same general meaning of dim/mad.
posted by biffa at 8:33 AM on April 16 [2 favorites]


This sounds like an episode of "Learned League: Behind the Question."
posted by DrAstroZoom at 9:17 AM on April 16 [2 favorites −] Favorite added! [!]


Is that...a thing? Holy shit would that be cool!
posted by notsnot at 8:35 AM on April 16 [1 favorite]


fearfulsymmetry, I had completely forgotten that. Thank you so much.

The "only three" thing seems a bit odd. Should one expect there to be more than three, if that many? Is the idea that once the snack food/mental illness-mstaphor seal is broken, it should be all insanity references from apples to zucchini?
posted by The Underpants Monster at 8:41 AM on April 16 [1 favorite]


There's also (nutty as a) fruitcake

Fruit loops? Cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs? Out of his noodle? I'm detecting a flawed premise here.
posted by XMLicious at 8:58 AM on April 16 [18 favorites]


I was going to mention the sugary cereal themed terms that XMLicious did, as well as the fast food themed "one fry short of a Happy Meal" (and its more semi-formal "one taco short of a combo plate").
posted by oneswellfoop at 9:04 AM on April 16


Fruit loops?

It's spelled Froot
posted by thelonius at 9:14 AM on April 16 [13 favorites]


Fruit loops?

That could also be a homophobic epithet. I remember a rap lyric (by LL Cool J, I think, circa 1990 or so) that went something like “I'm wearing an earring, but I ain't no fruit loop”.
posted by acb at 9:24 AM on April 16


The author only finds three because of his narrow eating patterns. Bugs is a common nickname for a crazy person. Exceedingly nervous people are antsy. Plenty of English speakers eat these (particularly if you call crabs and lobsters "bugs", as some do). When people lose control they go ape. This is perhaps pushing it, but at least there is potential. I'm sure there are others.
posted by ubiquity at 9:33 AM on April 16 [2 favorites]


Or if you’ve received the touch of a Vulcan, fruity as a nutcake.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 9:34 AM on April 16


“bugs”/“antsy” could refer to the hallucination of crawling insects on/beneath one's skin that is a common symptom of various types of psychosis.
posted by acb at 9:39 AM on April 16 [4 favorites]


Hare is a game meat. especially in mainland Europe... and we have the phrase 'As mad as a March hare' due to their antics during the breeding season (which I've been lucky enough to see). Hence why we have the March Hare in Alice In Wonderland alongside the more well known Mad Hatter.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 9:48 AM on April 16 [1 favorite]


Corrupt policemen in 1970s London were sometimes nick-named bananas. Why? Because they were "yellow, bent and hung around in bunches".
posted by Paul Slade at 9:55 AM on April 16 [6 favorites]


What a bunch of bologna.
posted by Foosnark at 10:43 AM on April 16


Pecan and walnut meats look so much like tiny brains, and the skull is very like a shell . . . and 'cracked' often means severely mentally ill, and blows to the head do often result in mental illness.

Hmm.
posted by jamjam at 10:45 AM on April 16 [2 favorites]


Which came first, “bananas” or “apeshit”?
posted by Sys Rq at 10:54 AM on April 16


How about "batshit insane"?
posted by mermayd at 11:22 AM on April 16


harebrained being a word from my childhood bubbling to the surface, as well
posted by polyhedron at 11:26 AM on April 16 [1 favorite]


Mmm, harebrain.
posted by Burhanistan at 11:32 AM on April 16 [1 favorite]


Nut is surely from ‘nut case’, nut being head.

There’s also barmy from barm, which I know is not exactly a foodstuff, but it’s related. That’s from the way the bubbles from fermentation make it pop and turn over unpredictably.
posted by Segundus at 11:56 AM on April 16 [1 favorite]


barm, which I know is not exactly a foodstuff,

Until you put chips in it you mean?
posted by biffa at 12:03 PM on April 16 [1 favorite]


How did two, and only two, birds become shorthand for mental illness? (Unless you want to include the dodo along with the loon and the cuckoo)
posted by TedW at 12:40 PM on April 16 [1 favorite]


How did two, and only two, birds become shorthand for mental illness? (Unless you want to include the dodo along with the loon and the cuckoo)

I thought that "loon" was originally a corruption of lune or luna, dating back to the belief that some mental disorders were related to the phases of the Moon.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 1:04 PM on April 16 [3 favorites]


Cf. lunatic
posted by Sys Rq at 1:27 PM on April 16 [1 favorite]


People (used to?) use the phrase "silly goose", they act "squirrelly", but sometimes they're just "kidding". If they're greedy they're "pigs", if they're weak-willed they're "sheep", but if they're determined they're "dogged". I could keep going.
posted by Joe in Australia at 3:09 PM on April 16


Obviously, out to lunch!
posted by unliteral at 5:03 PM on April 16 [2 favorites]


You'd have to be mad as a batter to eat uncooked pancakes.
posted by ActingTheGoat at 5:12 PM on April 16 [1 favorite]


I found a reference to the word "nuts" meaning "crazy" from 1849. I don't have access to the OED right now; can anyone check if they have an earlier one please?
posted by Joe in Australia at 6:04 PM on April 16


I thought there was something along the lines of scrambled egg / cracked egg as a euphemism for brain damaged / crazy, but I can't find it.

'Mad as hops' is old school, but it's about mad in the sense of angry.
posted by BrotherCaine at 7:35 PM on April 16


Joe in Australia, didn't find anything earlier in the OED, but:
Crazy," 1846, from earlier be nutts upon "be very fond of" (1785), which is possibly from nuts (plural noun) "any source of pleasure" (1610s), from nut (q.v.).
That's the Online Etymology Dictionary, though, I'm not sure how reliable it is.
posted by BlueNorther at 10:32 AM on April 17


'loon' or 'loony' as a perjorative for an insane person is short for 'lunatic.'

'loon', the bird species, gets its name from its call, which is supposed to sound like the laughter of a lunatic. (Wild howling laughter being a traditional symptom of lunacy, hence "laugh like a loon")

'loon' is also used in Scots dialect to mean 'young man,' though the older variant 'loun' or 'lowne' means 'scoundrel, rogue, worthless person.'
posted by Pallas Athena at 5:43 PM on April 17


'loon', the bird species, gets its name from its call, which is supposed to sound like the laughter of a lunatic.

Nope. It’s derived from the Old Norse lómr, which is wholly unrelated to lunatic.
posted by Sys Rq at 5:55 PM on April 17 [1 favorite]


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