barrel of monkeys

Victor Steinbok aardvark66 at GMAIL.COM
Fri May 21 08:46:04 UTC 2010

More fun than a barrel of monkeys // Barrel of monkeys // Monkey P4.
1895 --> 1885
Wagonload of monkeys // Monkey P4. ? --> 1837
[more general] X[load] of monkeys 1840 --> 1823
Barrel of fun // Barrel 1993 addition [I.][2.]b. 1915 --> 1892
Where the monkey puts the nuts // Monkey P7. a1935 --> 1906
Where the monkey puts the shells // Monkey P7. 1879 [no improvement]
Monkey see, monkey do // Monkey P8. 1920 --> 1908

I found Wilson's archived post about the game, but the expression
predates the game by quite some time--some 80 years, it seems. Wiki
lists the same date that Wilson had previously found (1965). The
inventors explicitly said that they got the name from the expression,
not the other way around. I am not sure which War Wilson was referring
to. So, unfortunately, we still don't have the origin of the phrase,
although some bits have come more clearly into view.

There had been some guesses that "barrel of monkeys" had been derived
from "barrel of fun" and "wagonload of monkeys". Although this is true
of the game--according to lore, the game designers initially were going
to name the game "Barrel of fun", but ran into trademark problems--it's
highly doubtful of the original phrase.

I also finally tracked down "barrel of monkeys" in the OED--it's one of
the March 2010 additions/phrases

> P4. colloq.a wagonload (also barrel, etc.) of monkeys: used as the
> type of something extremely clever, mischievous, disorderly, jolly,
> fun, etc.
> In barrel of monkeys, perh. influenced by barrel of fun (laughs, etc.)
> at BARREL n. Additions.
> 1840 G. DARLEY Thomas à Becket V. viii. 129 De Traci chatters More
> than a cage of monkeys: we must wait. 1889 Harper's Bazar 21 Dec.
> 932/4 My brother..says the American girls are perfectly fascinating...
> He says they are more fun than a box of monkeys. 1895 W. C. GORE in
> Inlander Dec. 115 Barrel of monkeys, or bushel of monkeys, to have
> more fun than, to have an exceedingly jolly time. 1908 W. G. DAVENPORT
> Butte & Montana 28 This is just more fun than a bag of monkeys. 1930
> G. GOODCHILD McLean Investigates xvi. 310 If once we lose touch with
> Feeny{em}good-bye to the Rajah's ruby. He is as clever as a cartload
> of monkeys. 1968 A. POWELL Mil. Philosophers 155 They're as artful as
> a cartload of monkeys when it comes to breaking the rules. 1978 G.
> VIDAL Kalki ii. 24 Christianity was never exactly a barrel of monkeys
> when it came to the here and now. 1986 Times 28 Apr. 31/6 Plot-wise,
> it is as mischievous as a wagon-load of monkeys. 1996 People
> (Electronic ed.) 2 June, Knows loads about loads of sports. Clever as
> a barrowload of monkeys.

Note, in particular, that both Albert Krahn's find
 > NEW YORK DISPATCH, 4 October 1885, pg. 2, col. 6

and mine
 > Judge's Serial. No. 1. New York: August 1887
 > THE MAN WHO TALKS; OR, The Drummer on the Rail.
 > From "JUDGE." p. 13
 > Longman's Magazine. London: December 1886
 > Edged Tools. A TALE IN TWO CHAPTERS. p. 161

predate the OED citation to the student slang entry from the Inland
(1895) that I mentioned earlier. But the Pickwick Papers citation (1837)
and The Man-of-War's-Man (1823) are both missing, so my search was not
for naught.

Also note that OED is one of the sources that suggests the derivation of
"barrel of monkeys" from "barrel of fun". But both the OED references
for "barrel of fun" and the ones I found /postdate/ barrel of monkeys!

> barrel n.
> Add: [I.] [2.] b. In fig. phr. barrel of fun (laughs, etc.): (the
> source of) a great deal of enjoyment or entertainment. colloq. (orig.
> U.S.).
> 1915 Dialect Notes IV. 243, I had a barrel of fun when I went to
> Maccasin. 1939 L. BROWN Beer Barrel Polka 4 Roll out the barrel We'll
> have a barrel of fun. 1977 Washington Post 8 June B1 No one has ever
> accused Princess Anne of being a barrel of laughs. 1981 Verbatim
> Spring (Bk. Club Catal.) 3/3 (Advt.), A wonderful object to..have a
> barrel of fun with. 1986 Parents Sept. 72/3 What they haven't
> bargained for is a wife who is so tired..that she's even less of a
> barrel of laughs than she was while pregnant.

Table talk, Volume 7:3. March 1892
A Barrel Of Fun. p. 91
> The cover, a sliding one, like those used on paint boxes. When pushed
> in, it looked like any other table, and, with its gay spread, was
> always ready for books, slates and dolls' tea parties, galore. It was
> painted brown, and the box lined with zinc. Then came what the
> expressman called "a barrel of sand," and groaned when he said it. It
> proved a /barrel of fun/, and everybody laughed then. The cover was
> removed from the table, the box top filled with the sand, and the pies
> were "lovely" once more.

Another phrase that appears in the March 2010 draft is one that I've
spotted and discussed off-list back in March, in connection with "Put
your money where your mouth is".

> P7. slang (chiefly Brit.). to put it where the monkey puts the nuts:
> expressing contemptuous rejection. Also where the monkey puts the nuts
> and variants: in the anus.
> 1879 Harlequin Prince Cherrytop 25 Put your gifts away, Where the
> monkey put the shells. a1935 T. E. LAWRENCE Mint (1955) II. xiv. 139
> ‘Put that where the monkey put the nuts,’ retorted Taffy. 1968 J. R.
> ACKERLEY My Father & Myself 43 The kind of proud and angry way in
> which one might say, ‘Put it where the monkey put the nuts!’ 1970 V.
> CANNING Great Affair x. 168 He would get six inches of true British
> timber where the monkey kept his nuts. 1988 J. NEEL Death's Bright
> Angel iii. 16 He added a scribbled note suggesting the supplier be
> told to put the writ where the monkey put the nuts.

The 1935 date for the actual head phrase can be improved.
The marriage of Captain Kettle. By Charles John Cutcliffe Wright Hyne.
1912, p. 215
> "Captain?"
> "Yes, Mr. McTodd."
> "About yon black fellow the stewardess kenned. For why did he ask if I
> could do him a bit job ashore, and offer me a fi'pound note on account?"
> "I don't know. But naturally you told him you were engaged here, and
> he could put his money where the monkey put the nuts." "Man," said
> McTodd solemnly, "you'd never guess it of me, but I'll tell ye in
> confidence that I come form the North, and up there it's said to be
> unlucky if you refuse siller if it's as good as offered ye. So I--I
> angled him, and I landed the note. I changed it with the steward to
> make sure if was a good one."
Kate Meredith, financier. By Charles John Cutcliffe Wright Hyne. 1906.
p. 111
> You can let both Chips and the bo's'n understand that unless I see a
> good round sum in hard cash as my share of profits when we get back to
> Liverpool, they don't ride in the old /M'poso/ next trip. They can put
> their book debts where the monkey put the nuts. They don't pay me out
> with those. No, by Crumbs!

At the time I spotted these, I did not check for variants. These are
likely to be British in origin, so searching US papers won't help. So no
improvement on the "shells" date (1879). But there is an interesting

> County settles with fired employee
> Pay-Per-View - St. Petersburg Times - ProQuest Archiver - Nov 25, 1998
> "I'd tell 'em to put it where the monkey put the coconut," said
> Tenini, a retired Spring Hill resident. "I can't see settling for $19500.

It is in this form that I first heard the expression, likely on TV.

One more phrase from the Monkey list.

> P8. colloq. monkey see, monkey do: commenting (freq. contemptuously)
> on an instance of unthinking imitation, or of learning or performing
> by rote.
> 1920 Mansfield (Ohio) News 4 Jan. 4A (caption) Monkey see monkey do.
> 1934 Z. N. HURSTON Jonah's Gourd Vine i. 24 You jes started tuh talk
> dat foolishness since you been hangin' 'round ole Mimms. Monkey see,
> monkey do. 1967 E. PARTRIDGE Dict. Slang (ed. 6) Suppl. 1250/2 Monkey
> see, monkey do!, a Canadian (and U.S.) c[atch] p[hrase] ‘addressed to
> one who imitates the actions of another, or as a warning not to do
> such and such because someone (usually a child) might follow suit’.
> 1978 Maledicta 1977 1 273 Monkey see; monkey do. Elaborate precautions
> of Parisian couturiers could not curtail the spy. 1986 Video Today
> Apr. 57/1 Buttons only identified by symbols so read instructions
> carefully{em}a case of monkey see monkey do. 1995 Financial Post
> (Nexis) 22 June III. 51 It's no secret the monkey-see-monkey-do NHL is
> hell-bent on transforming itself into the NBA.
A class-room conversation book. By Fong F. Sec. 1908
p. 118
> Monkeys are great imitators, hence the saying, " Monkey see, monkey do."


On 5/21/2010 2:00 AM, Wilson Gray wrote:
> I may be entirely wrong, but I've always thought that "more fun than a
> barrel of monkeys" was based on A Barrel of Monkeys, a children's game
> played with toy monkeys taken from a toy barrel, the first monkey was
> hung over the edge of the barrel and the remainder were hung by the
> tails, until the chain broke. During The War, available at
> Woolworth's, Kresge's, and other fine stores, as well as in the toy
> departments of better department stores.
> IME, the game is too complicated for pre-schoolers lacking the
> necessary fine motor skills and too boring for older children, So,
> I've always fet that the phrase is, or was, used tronically
> -Wilson

The American Dialect Society -

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