9 monkey phrases and their meanings
Monkeys have it tough in the English language. Generally speaking, being called a monkey (or invoking one) does not bode well. While silliness is certainly the most common connotation, association with a monkey can also mean foolishness, aggravation, environmental terrorism, and cold. Here are nine examples of monkey language:
cold enough to freeze the balls (nose, tail, etc.) off a brass monkey
No one has been able to trace the full history of this bizarre phrase. Several theories have been floated over the years, most notably the idea that monkey actually refers to the brass rack (called a monkey) that would have been used to stack cannon balls on a ship. In extreme cold, the brass would contract and thus force the cannon balls out of the rack. However, this story has not been confirmed – and does little to explain why other simian body parts have also been dropping off.
Even though it sounds sort of harmless, no one should want to end up in the monkey house. While the term initially referred to the building in a zoo that houses the monkeys, by the early 20th century it was referring to buildings housing humans as well. Although monkey house has been used as a satirical term for political institutions, such as Parliament, the term has also been used as slang for psychiatric hospitals and prisons.
Broadly speaking, monkey business refers to fooling around or any sort of mischievous behavior, ranging from bribery in politics to kissing. Related to monkey business is the verb monkey, which means to “behave in a silly or playful way” or “to tamper with.”
The exact reasons why this adjustable wrench ended up being called a monkey wrench are still disputed. That said, any straightforward sense of utility is thrown slightly askew by the wrench’s appearance in the phrase to throw a monkey wrench in the works. Referring to the creation of an obstruction or hindrance, this phrase and its variants inject some monkey business into the tool’s place in language.
One person who played off of this phrase is Edward Abbey, an American author and essayist, whose 1975 novel The Monkey Wrench Gang follows a group of radical environmentalists as they protest land development in the American West. Going by the moniker “The Monkey Wrench Gang,” this group deploys sabotages as a method of taking a political stand, and ultimately gives us the verb to monkeywrench, which means to “sabotage (something), especially as a form of protest.”
monkey see, monkey do
more fun than a barrel of monkeys
While this sounds more like a nightmare – I’m thinking of that scene in the movie Jumanji – people have been referring to enjoyable activities as “more fun than a [insert container of choice] of monkeys” since at least the early 19th century. Whether a cage, box, bag, barrel, or wagonload, monkeys (contained monkeys, anyway) have been the purveyors of joy for quite some time. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) notes the relationship to the phrase barrel of laughs.
Well, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle!
Used to express surprise or disbelief — especially to intensify a previous statement, this phrase dates to 1925, the year of the Scopes Monkey trial, a landmark court case in Tennessee over the legality of teaching evolution in a state-funded school. The phrase is usually regarded as a sarcastic response to Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, which was beginning to see wider public acceptance in the first part of the 20th century.
a monkey on one’s back
Although this phrase started off specifically as an allusion to a drug problem – monkey referring to the addiction or the symptoms of withdrawal — it eventually came to refer to any problem or issue that was a burden to someone.
Do you have any favorite monkey-related phrases?