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This blog is about the fascinating, fun, and challenging things about the English language. I hope to entertain you and to help you with problems or just questions you might have with spelling and usage. I go beyond just stating what is right and what is wrong, and provide some history or some tips to help you remember. Is something puzzling you? Feel free to email me at wordlady.barber@gmail.com.
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Saturday, April 25, 2020

Of bananas and bandanas

The picture in my previous post which hilariously suggested "bananas" rather than "bandanas" as suitable face masks may have some of you wondering where the word bandana comes from.

We owe bandana, like some other fabric words (see also calico), to the highly coloured cloths that Europeans encountered when they arrived in India.  It came from a Hindi word designating a tie-dyed silk handkerchief, and probably came into English via Portuguese. Of course nowadays bandanas are much more likely to be made of cotton and are printed rather than tie-dyed.

Although "bandanna" is, surprisingly, the only spelling listed in the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, the two spellings, bandanna and bandana, are pretty much neck-and-neck in American English, and "bandana" is much more frequent in English over all.  It is the first spelling given in the Canadian Oxford Dictionary.

Banana, meanwhile, also came into English by way of Portuguese, but is originally from the name for the fruit in the West African language Wolof.

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About Me

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.