porch monkey

Victor Steinbok aardvark66 at GMAIL.COM
Fri Jan 21 08:30:42 UTC 2011

Not in OED in /any/ sense--ethnic slur, the (original?) functional term,
or "statuette" house accessory derived from it. Wiki has an odd
suggestion under Ethnic slurs:

> Porch monkey
>     a black person referring to perceived common behavior of groups
> hanging out on front porches or steps of urban apartment complexes in
> U.S. cities.

This is the sentiment shared by most posts under "porch monkey" in UD,
but it sounds like backwards derivation, suggesting a rational
explanation to an older term. Besides, front steps or stoops are /not/

GB is horrific on the subject--there is nothing before 1970, when
Mississippi Folklore Register picks up the term as one used by white
troops in reference to black troops in WWII.


The snippet shows irrelevant text, but the preview is more forthcoming:

> A more mundane reliance on the monkey-image to express racist
> attitudes can be seen in terms such as "porch monkey," much in use by
> white American servicemen during World War II to describe Negro
> comrades-in-arms.

There are 11 other GB hits that may have some relevance through 1990,
none between 1970 and 1982, with only a handful with snippet view of the
relevant text. There are no hits in AHN at all--not one! There are no
GNA hits either prior to 1983 (and the earliest one is
here--http://goo.gl/LyheO ). This is highly puzzling to me, as I heard
the term /explained/ to me in 1983 by a college classmate (from Long
Island). At that point, I was already aware of the term referring to the
half-size lamp-posts carved (or molded--wooden, metal, ceramic or
plastic) in the shape of a human (white or black) or an actual monkey
(also sometimes pitch-black, dressed in lackey uniform)--this is
actually why I asked for an explanation in the first place. The
explanation I got, at that point, was that it originally referred to
actual people (often children--hence half-size post) who held the lamps
or other accoutrements at Southern mansions (and, occasionally, in
Northern ones too, although the subjects would not have been slaves).
Finally, the term was also a general racial slur derived from those two

But if this is the case, I find no evidence of this anywhere. Slang
dictionaries appear to ignore the phrase. Contemporary "common wisdom"
(such as Wiki and UD--the only links offered by OneLook) ascribes it to
the "perceived habit" of African-Americans (Wiki adds "urban") to sit on
the porch (and, as one UD posts suggests, to "throw back 40s", which is
a reference to 40-oz malt liquor). Nowhere do I find the explanation in
any shape or form similar to the one I got by word of mouth back in
1983. I've seen the lamps (and just posts that were meant to resemble
them--without the actual lamps) in stores, sometimes labeled as "porch
monkeys". I did not imagine these--they really were there, and not in
the Deep South, but in an Allston/Brighton, MA, "Antiques" store (among
several). There is also no doubt that there is a corresponding ethnic slur.

So what gives? This is the kind of stuff that, for the first time, makes
/me/ feel old (with apologies to Jon, Wilson and others). I also recall
someone suggesting, at one point--without evidence--that the same
terminology was used in Colonial India to refer to boys with fans who
accompanied rich locals or Brits. In this case, the claim seems more
doubtful, in light of complete absence from recorded literature--and I
would have expected fewer reservation in using such terminology in
British and Indian texts. In US, on the other hand, it is quite obvious
that there was significant /awareness/ of "porch monkey" as an ethnic
slur between 1970-1983, yet there is no record of that either, except
for singular publications at either end. And this awareness might have
contributed to keeping the term /out/ of printed sources. Still, if the
term is older, why the mystery?

The 1983 piece in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette places it in a sentence
right next to "jungle bunny"--which, to my mind, is more modern (OED has
quotations from 1966 to 1974 from US, Australia and South Africa--GNA
has the earliest appearance in NYT on May 11, 1969). But, although
printed accounts portray "porch monkey" going back at least to WWII,
there are no printed accounts that I found that actually use it! Still,
"jungle bunny" appearing in print in the late 60s and "porch monkey" in
1970 is suggestive.

So, there you have it. It's a ghost racial epithet that may or may not
have origin in slavery, but one that has existed nearly invisible for at
least 30 years--or, possibly, 130 years or even longer. And the non-slur
usage is also invisible, even today.


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