Botanical Names for Banana

Appears in

Oxford Companion to Food

Oxford Companion to Food

By Alan Davidson

Published 2014

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The story of the botanical names for the banana is interesting. Musa goes back to the Sanskrit ‘moca’, but does not seem to have attained its Latinized form until the Middle Ages, via the Arabic ‘mauz’, first used in the 13th century. (Theories that the name came from that of the doctor of the Emperor Augustus, Antonius Musa, or from the south Arabian trading city of Moka seem to be without foundation.) The old specific name sapientium, whose origin is explained elsewhere in this entry, was reserved for sweet, eating bananas. Plantains or cooking bananas were assigned to M. paradisiaca, another name with a story behind it. In an Islamic myth, probably of Indian origin, the banana was the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, in the Garden of Eden (which was fittingly situated in Sri Lanka). Furthermore, after the Fall, Adam and Eve covered their nakedness with banana leaves rather than those of the fig. This may explain why in some parts of the W. Indies people call a banana a fig. It is certainly true that large pieces of banana leaf would have been much more effective for Adam and Eve than small fig leaves.