Monkey see(s), monkey do(es), 1901, 1893

Neal Whitman nwhitman at AMERITECH.NET
Tue Nov 19 18:47:08 UTC 2013

Someone on Facebook asked me why the expression is "Monkey see,
monkey do" instead of "Monkey sees, monkey does." Doing a bit of
research for a possible Visual Thesaurus column, I found  this 2004 ADS-L
message dating the expression to 1922:;4qir2A;200403300121080500E
I have also found "monkey see, monkey do" from 1901 via Google
Books, in an issue of the Seamen's Friend magazine:
I am firmly convinced that it captains would keep these saloon touts off
their ships that the number of the desertions would decrease. But what can be
expected when many of the officers themselves hobnob with such men. There is an
old saying, “monkey see monkey do,” and a great many men and boys take their
cue from their officers; boys ape the man.
still doesn't explain the lack of verbal morphology, or the anarthrous
"monkey". It sounded to me (and also Ben) like Chinese Pidgin
English, especially two-part conditional-like sentences like "no
pain, no gain", but I have not been able to verify this. The closest I've
come is this blog post by David Crystal, in which he assumes that its source is
a pidgin of some sort, but does not give details

On the other hand, it seems that an earlier version of the expression *did* have
singular morphology. I have found "monkey sees, monkey does" in 1893
in a Library of Congress newspaper archive. It's in the fine print above the
line "We Are Selling the Shoes!" here:
Other variations include "what monkey sees, monkey does,"
"monkeys see, monkeys do," etc.Further antedatings or
information about possible pidgin origins are welcomed.

The American Dialect Society -

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