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"Monkey business" seems to be a widely used idiom. I looked it up on Wiktionary and I found two main possible meanings, one stressing the silliness of an activity:

(US, slang) Wasting time, or effort, on some foolish project. / An activity that is considered silly, or stupid, or time-wasting.

the other one questioning its morality:

(idiomatic) An activity that may be considered illegal, questionable, or a vice, but not felonious.

The Free Dictionary seems to favor the latter meaning.

Without any context that could help clarify the exact meaning, which of the two characterizations is usually understood?

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4 Answers 4

up vote 11 down vote accepted

I think the two meanings are so close it's hardly practical to try and split usages into one or the other. Lots of things can be called "monkey business" - in if I catch him up to any monkey business with my sister, I'll bash him, it simply means making sexual advances.

Other words with the same broad spread of meanings include shenanigans, mischief, skullduggery, roguery, nonsense, funny business/stuff, antics, horseplay. It's a matter of context whether the activity thus described is immoral, or simply frivolous, but it's invariably somewhat disapproved of.

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1  
“Monkey business” sounds like one of those pansexual things, referring to bonobos — who, after all, are Pan paniscus. :) –  tchrist Feb 27 '12 at 13:31

I would say the former is usually understood. I can see it extending to the latter, but I always think of monkey business as something more benign.

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A century or more ago monkey business was much more likely to only imply "frivolous" activities, but today there are plenty of examples like this one (talking about insider dealing in financial markets), where "skullduggery" would be an appropriate synonym. –  FumbleFingers Feb 27 '12 at 15:15

Monkey business is illegal business or illegal action taken by someone. Or things you do that can't favour you.

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In the 1920's in the USA a teacher called Scopes was put on trial for teaching evolution. He apparently coached his pupils into acting as prosecution witnesses as this was to be a show trial. When one of them was asked whether he had been taught evolution by Scopes the pupil replied yes, he was then asked if he believed in it. He replied that he generally believed the theory but did not agree with "all that monkey business".

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Perhaps so, but that usage seems to imply a prior colloquialism that enables us to understand it. By which I mean, he didn't say "lion business", "mouse business" or anything else and thus seems to have engaged an idiom already existing. –  virmaior Mar 16 at 15:58
    
I think this is probably an "urban myth" quote. But apparently it is true that the whole trial was largely treated as frivolous by many of the locals (and indeed the country as a whole, since "evolution-deniers" had little credibility by then). The Dayton Progressive Club also adopted a resolution condemning the frivolous attitude being taken toward the trial, asking Daytonians to "remove all 'monkey business' advertisements" and "save their humor for the Sunday comics". –  FumbleFingers Mar 16 at 16:33

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