WORDS: Monkey

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The Independent Online
THE TRADE wars between Europe and the States have rightly attracted some heavily critical comment from our quality press, but it's been tinged with a certain jokiness, inevitable when the commodity at the centre of the dispute has been the banana. Never mind that on its production and sale depends the livelihood of large numbers of hard-working people. You've got to laugh.

The Times headed its leader "Yellow and Bent", the "bent" being, I suppose, an allusion to the distorting effect of tariff barriers, but it didn't really come off. The Daily Telegraph's leader did better with its heading "Banana Skins". But the Independent beat them both with its first sentence. "It is time," it said, "to end the monkey business over the banana war."

Bananas go with monkeys like horse with carriage. Each of them, the beast and the fruit, lends an extra touch of absurdity to the other. The entry for monkey and its combinations in the OED runs to nine columns, only the horse and the dog among animals, with 40 and 15 respectively, have more, and most of the allusions are scornful in one way or another. Or if not scornful, pitying and patronising, as used of children; Lady Macduff, learning of her husband's assassination by Macbeth's hitmen, says to her son: "God help thee poor monkey, but how wilt thou do for a father?" (Macduff himself calls his children chickens, and others have sometimes called theirs toads, I'm not sure why.)

All this talk of monkeys is rather hard on a creature which for intelligence and initiative is second only to human beings, leaving horse and dog many millennia behind. But men feel uneasy with monkeys. We can't avoid the idea that while we are mocking them it's really they who are mocking us. The verb to ape underlines the point.

I used to think that monkey must be a corruption of mannikin, a little man, but the dictionary tells me otherwise. Apparently it's a diminutive form of the Italian monna, a female ape. Why female? Walter Skeat, the Victorian etymologist says that monna was "a familiar corruption of madonna". I also learn from the OED that in the 1920s chorus girls on Broadway were sometimes called monkeys. It's a shameful thing, but there seems to be no getting away from it. And it's particularly unjust when you consider that men, with all that hair on face and body, are closer to monkeys than women are, and can therefore be regarded as less advanced.

Much of that long dictionary entry is to do with monkey in conjunction with other words. We have monkey wrenches and monkey boats and monkey jackets and a monkey-trap, a dialect expression meaning "something decorative worn by women to make themselves attractive to men", which at least compensates a little for the shocking sexism found in other uses and in the etymology of the word.

Some of the combinations make a sort of sense. A monkey engine, for example, is an engine for driving piles, because the up-and-down oscillations of the ram are like the old toy called monkey-on-a-stick. Most of the others are perfectly mysterious, at least to me.