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TWTS: Sometimes "top banana" plays second fiddle to "second banana"

Consider the banana. Actually, consider the top banana, because that's the phrase that someone recently brought to our attention.

Professor Anne Curzan says a friend told her she loves the phrase "top banana" because of its theater etymology. 

"I wanted to nod wisely at that moment, like I knew that piece of information, but in fact, I did not," Curzan says.

Time for some banana-related homework.

From what we can tell, "top banana" is theater slang, mostly in the US. Originally, it meant the leading comic in burlesque entertainment. Today, we generally use it to talk about the most important person in an organization or activity, with "second banana" as the second most important.

The Oxford English Dictionary's first citation of "top banana" is from 1948, though others have since predated that with a 1947 citation. The OED has this example, which inludes quotation marks and a parenthetical:  "Joey was a 'top banana,' (burlesque for comic) at a time when [Abbott and Costello] were second and third bananas."

The New York Times has an article from 1958 that dates "top banana" back to 1927. The article describes a routine in which three comedians are trying to share two bananas, with one person as the "top banana" and one as the "second banana."

When it comes to frequency of use, we found that "second banana" is much more common than "top banana." So, if you've ever felt like a second banana, don't worry. Clearly, it just means you're more popular.

Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Radio. She also co-hosts Michigan Radio’s weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
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