"Monkey" & "Come off the roof" (1883 article)

Bapopik at AOL.COM Bapopik at AOL.COM
Thu Aug 5 13:30:43 UTC 1999

     If you get enough monkeys typing, one of them will write like
Shakespeare.  I don't know who first said this, but I came across the NEW
AMONG APES."  There is a photo with the caption: "POLLY, A CHIMPANZEE, LIKES
TO RUN A TYPEWRITER."  Col. 6 has:

     Polly is a typist.  The paper must be put in place for her; then she
pounds the keys.  When the bell rings she knows it is time to stop and looks
around for some one to move the carrier back for her.  If no one comes at
once she rattles the machine impatiently.

     This interesting slang article came up using Historical Newspapers
Online.  From the NEW YORK TIMES, 26 August 1883, pg. 6, col. 5:

     Stupid and silly slang, like everything else that is stupid and silly,
is unpardonable, but slang that is at once picturesque and expressive need
not be wholly condemned.  All new forms of expression are virtually slang,
and if they are really meritorious they become, by grace of years, legitimate
language.  A very large proportion of what is now good English was at one
time slang.  When Mr. JOHN SULLIVAN boasts that he can "get away with" any
rival pugilist, he is using the slang of the prize-ring, but when Mr. TILDEN
remarks that he can "circumvent" a political rival he is using a legitimate
English word.  And yet "to circumvent" a man was, when the expression was
new, as unmistakably slang as "to get away with" a man is to-day.  All
languages have been expanded and enriched by slang, and it would not be too
much to say that all figurative speech consists of authorized or of
unauthorized slang.
     The verb "to monkey," which is only a year or two old, and is as yet
pure slang, is evidently to become in course of time a legitimate expression.
 "To monkey" is a neuter verb, though if converted into French it would
undoubtedly take the reflexive form--_se singer_.  Its primary meaning is to
busy one's self in ways other than utilitarian.  The amateur painter, or
musician, "monkeys" with art, and the political theorist who invents
impracticable reforms may be said "to monkey" with politics.  The verb is
occasionally used as a synonym for the expression "to busy one's self" with
anything, but it cannot be legitimately used of honest, useful work, except
when such work is either badly done or is undertaken as a recreation rather
than as a legitimate business.
     Who invented the verb "to monkey" will probably never be known, but the
inventor "monkeyed" with the English language better than he knew.  The word
is so full of meaning, and differs by such delicate and subtle shades from
the legitimate words most closely related to it in meaning, that it will win
its place in the ranks of grave and regular language.  Already it has
ascended from the sidewalk and is met with growing frequency--though as yet
clad in quotation marks--in the columns of newspapers.  Our descendants will
use it without a thought of impropriety, and the grave historian who may
write two hundred years hence of the present period in American history will
tell his readers how Mr. BLAINE "monkeyed" with South American affairs and
how Mr. GOULD made an enormous fortune by "monkeying" with railroad stocks.
     A still more recent example of slang is the ironical request of the
street boy to a conceited and boastful opponent to "come off the roof."
(RHHDAS has 1885 for "come off" and "come off your perch"--ed.)  The request
needs no explanation.  It is vivid and picturesque.  The world is full of men
who might properly be requested to "come off the roof."  When Democratic
leaders insist that the Government must be administered honestly, or when
GOV. BUTLER poses as a reformer, it is time to tell them to "come off the
roof" and to descend to their true level.
     There is a field of study offered to the philologist in current slang
which is worth cultivation.  THe slang of the street is to a large extent the
language of the future.  It is the survival of the fittest of slang words and
expressions that makes language.  The philologist who will lay aside his
dignity, "come off the roof," and "monkey" with slang will find himself
abundantly repaid.

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