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Someone asked me for something and I said, "Do you need it right now, or do I have a couple hours to monkey around with it?" They got really quiet. While certainly unprofessional, is this also somehow offensive?

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You weren’t by chance addressing a simian, were you? –  tchrist Jun 3 '12 at 0:22
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You weren't by chance addressing someone who is black, were you? –  Andrew Leach Jun 3 '12 at 9:51
    
@Andrew Leach It was on the phone so possibly. –  Mikey Jun 3 '12 at 19:11
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@Mikey Some people are hypersensitive to words that are offensive in other contexts. As Andrew notes, 'monkey' is considered deeply offensive by some black people. I had a similar experience once where I was sharply rebuked for using the word 'unmolested' when asking if I could remove my name badge while working on some non-customer service tasks in a retail store. See also, the long and storied history of Niggardly. –  LessPop_MoreFizz Jun 3 '12 at 23:56
    
I can't think of anyone who might have been offended if you'd used 'tinker' instead. –  Edwin Ashworth Sep 24 '12 at 21:52

5 Answers 5

Limiting the use of the word monkey around a black person in a perfectly legitimate phrasing is what I find offensive because it seems to suggest that we are in fact monkeys and one should be careful not to draw attention to it by even using the word.

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The context you used your phrase is not offensive. However, the phrase itself, is.

As some comments had pointed out, there is some hypersensitivity surrounding that phrase. Most of the hypersensitivity is due to racial implications.

While I'm sure you meant no offense (your context even proves it), chances are that you probably were talking to someone either of ethnicity or someone who is just sensitive to ethnic slurs.

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To "monkey around" is to NOT do something (or take something) seriously. If it was a work situation, that might be "professionally" (as opposed to "socially") offensive.

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The term is not offensive, however, it is usually used to describe an effort (to improve something) that does not succeed, so maybe that's why the person got quiet.

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I don't think the term is necessarily offensive, but maybe your cavalier attitude toward the "something" was what gave the person pause. Maybe he or she thought you should handle whatever the something was with more care than implied by monkeying around with it.

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JLG, I think the problem, if any, is more likely to be the offer to supply the something right away, without taking time to improve it or to figure out if it will work. –  jwpat7 Jun 3 '12 at 0:30
    
@jwpat7, It could be, but without knowing what the "something" is, we're all just guessing. It could have been something concrete, like a tool, or maybe a computer file Mikey was supposed to be working on. –  JLG Jun 3 '12 at 1:55
    
It was a computer file, but I've probably said the same of tools I've been borrowing and mechanical devices I've been repairing/modifying. –  Mikey Jun 3 '12 at 19:56

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