The Dominican Republic has its share of unusual names for fruit and vegetables that are unknown in much of the rest of the Spanish-speaking world. We’ve run through a long list of these on several occasions here on Dominican Cooking, and looked in depth at particular examples such as the mystery of oranges being called “chinas” (pronounced “cheenas”), which we unraveled with the help of a reader.
Another strange case is that of the word Dominicans use for banana. The word ‘banana’ is almost universal, and is used not just in English and Spanish, but also in countless other languages. In Spanish, while bananas tend to be called plátanos, the word banana or banano, although understood, is used to refer to the plant (banano) or in a generic way. La cosecha bananera – the banana harvest.
The Dominican Republic is not the only country where the word guineo is used for banana – it is also heard in Puerto Rico, some parts of Nicaragua, and a few other countries in the Spanish-speaking world.
Venezuela incidentally has its own one-off name for banana – cambúr. But that’s another conundrum that will have to be tackled elsewhere.
Plátano in the DR is plantain, and banana is guineo. In the same way as oranges are called chinas because they do indeed originate in China, could bananas be called guineos because they come from… Guinea? The question is, which Guinea?
‘Guinea’ now forms part of the names of no less than three different countries in West Africa (Guinea Bissau, Equatorial Guinea and Guinea Conakry) and one country in South-East Asia/Oceania (Papua New Guinea). It also appears as the name of a bird, guinea fowl or guinea in Spanish, itself of African origin and a very popular farmyard animal in the Dominican Republic. Historically, Guinea was the name for much of West Africa, and the word in fact derives from the Berber (the language spoken in North Africa) for ‘land of the blacks’.
Bananas though, are not actually native to Africa, although by the sixteenth and seventeenth century, when the slave trade was at its height, they were pretty much well established there, having been brought from their native South-East Asia by Arab merchants centuries earlier. The word ‘banana’, it turns out, comes from the Arabic for ‘finger’. It was the Portuguese, in turn, who brought bananas from Africa to Latin America and the Caribbean, more or less at the same time as the slave trade.
West Africa is where most if not all the slaves who were brought to work in the plantations of Hispaniola by the French and Spanish came from. In the early days, they would refer to their native land not as ‘Africa’ but as ‘Guinée’ (French for Guinea).
Interestingly, though, guinée does not survive as the word for banana in neighboring Haiti. The Haitian Kreyol for banana is figue (French for ‘fig’) or figue-banan. This is a curiosity in itself – the Portuguese used to call bananas ‘garden figs’ or ‘Indian figs’ in the 16th century, coincidentally around the time they were busy introducing bananas to the West Indies. In Haiti, plain banan is the word for plantain.
So, why are bananas called guineos?
Although it is likely that the reason bananas are called guineos in the DR because they were believed to have come from Guinea, namely Africa, their true origins are in South-East Asia, or more precisely, Oceania, on an island that coincidentally, is called Papua New Guinea. Papua New Guinea received the ‘New Guinea’ part of its modern-day name from the 16th century Spanish explorer Yñigo Ortiz de Retez, who like many of his contemporaries, saddled a nation with a name based on a vague notion that its people bore a resemblance to West Africans.
So, in conclusion, bananas are called guineos in the DR and some other places because they came from an area in West Africa known as Guinea, which in turn gave its name to the island in South East Asia, now called Papua New Guinea, where bananas came from in the first place.
Satisfyingly symmetrical or just plain confusing? You decide.