barrel of monkeys

Garson O'Toole adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM
Fri May 21 15:56:34 UTC 2010

Victor Steinbok wrote
> Subject:      Re: barrel of monkeys
> 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
> ...

One phrase for an aggregate of monkeys with a long literary history is
"a wilderness of monkeys". Here is an example that emphasizes the
connection to "fun", the term typically associated with barrels of

Cite: 1870 May, Blackwood's Magazine, Our Poor Relations, Page 533, W.

Going further afield for examples of unobtrusive merit, what a wealth
of humor is comprised in the phrase, "A wilderness of monkeys"! What
endless fun, what fresh comedy, what brilliant farce, what infinity of
byplay and private jesting, quite beyond the reach of our most popular
comedians, is being forever enacted in those leafy theatres where they
hold their untiring revels!

The phrase can be traced back to the pen of William Shakespeare.
Shylock uses it when discussing a turquoise ring, "I would not have
given it for a wilderness of monkeys" in Merchant of Venice. (Monkeys
is sometimes spelled "monkies".) "The feeling of which Shylock is
capable is seen in the admirable response he makes when he hears that
Jessica has bartered for a monkey the turquoise he gave his wife" from
Shakespeare's Politics (1981) by Allan Bloom.

Cite 1981, Shakespeare's Politics by Allan Bloom, Page 22, University
of Chicago Press, Chicago.

An 1859 reference discusses fanciful names for groups of birds and
mentions the phrase. Regarding manias for naming collections of
animals, the phrase is also mentioned in "An Exaltation of Larks: The
Ultimate Edition"(1993) by James Lipton; so is a barrel of monkeys.

Cite: 1859 October 29, The Literary Gazette, Number 70, Page 418, J. Wheaton.

... a sedge of herons, a wing or congregation of plover, a desert of
lapwings, a walk of snipes, a fling of oxbirds,  and a hill of ruffs
-- expressions which, though some might be apt to vote them about as
apposite as that of "a wilderness of monkeys," yet, to those at all
conversant with the respective habits of the birds alluded to, convey
the most apt and characteristic allusions conceivable.


The American Dialect Society -

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