On Fox News I saw a segment where gubernatorial candidate for Florida was talking about mayor of Tallahassee, Andrew Gillum, running for governor. In it he says:

"Let's build off the success we've had on Governor Scott. The last thing we need to do is to monkey this up by trying to embrace a socialist agenda."

My interest is in the term "monkey up". I understood the meaning he meant to convey probably from the association that monkeys are said to have with mischief.

2. One who behaves in a way suggestive of a monkey, as a mischievous child or a mimic.
American Heritage Dictionary

This mischief association is found in other dictionaries too.

I tried to look up variations of "monkey up something" or "monkey something up", or "monkey it up" and all I found were results of this particular statement made by this politician. Generally the results are on this particular event and that it was used intentionally for racial motives.

I've looked up "monkey" as a verb itself and found meanings along these lines:

  1. (intr; usually foll by around, with, etc) to meddle, fool, or tinker
    Collins English Dictionary

But this seems somewhat different from the meaning of to "ruin", "mess up", "bungle", "regress" etc, although I admit they may be related. The problem is that in my search I have not seen an instance of this phrase, "to monkey up" to mean this outside of this particular instance.

Also possibly related, "throw a (monkey) wrench in(to) the works", which does indeed mean to "set back" or "halt progress" or break something, or along those lines.

I want to purely keep this on an English usage level and not go anywhere near politics or race. Is there an instance or two of "monkey up" someone can provide with this meaning that I may have missed? I'd be grateful. Maybe my searching skills are bad, but all the results returned were about this particular incident.

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    This citation is widely seen as a subtle racial slur by the politician in question, given the 'dog-whistle' association between blacks in the US and apes or monkeys (his opponent is African-American). I have no idea if this is what he intended but it is being seen that way. – Jim Mack Sep 2 '18 at 15:16
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    @Jim Mack Yeah I know, I'm currently currently speculating what political outcome was intended by using this phrase, as I said I wanted to keep this purely English based with citations of the phrase "monkey up". I know "monkey around" is a term. And monkey as a verb by itself is known, famously used by astronomer Fred Hoyle when he said roughly "a super intellect has monkeyed with physics..." "Monkey up" I haven't found in searches, I was hoping someone could help me with that. And honestly, I don't know what his intention was, from my standpoint it's impossible to know for sure. – Zebrafish Sep 2 '18 at 15:28
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    @Jason Bassford I saw the (get angry) meaning, it's not the meaning I'm talking about. The Hacker's Dictionary has another different meaning. As to the movie title "Monkey Up", I'm not sure if that has the same meaning, I'm unfamiliar with the movie. What can be provided that's not in the question is a response to my request for a citation or two where it's used in this particular sense, that is, in the sense used by this politician. I did searches in two search engines and the only citations are related to this incident. My search skills are probably bad as I didn't find any results. – Zebrafish Sep 2 '18 at 15:57
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    @user070221 That is a Florida Today opinion piece stating what the phrase can mean, without reference. Thank you for your contribution, but this seems nothing other than opinion given on the phrase's use in the exact event I talked about in my question. I would like to see a citation or two other than this particular use in this particular Fox News piece. Again, I may be a bad searcher for not being able to find one. – Zebrafish Sep 2 '18 at 16:26
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    Monkey (and ape) has long been a derisive term for a mechanic or maintenance person with only basic skills and limited intellect. Grease monkeys date back at least to the early railroad days. Yard apes are boatyard or sawmill laborers. And MMTers (The mechanical teams that installed and removed ICBMs from silos) were missile monkeys; distinguishing them from the more esteemed electronics techs. When the Peter Principle is in play, things tend to get monkeyed up. I score it as an unfortunate portmanteau of monkeyed with and mucked up. – Phil Sweet Sep 2 '18 at 16:37

I've done more searching, and found these phrases which definitely seem to have the same meaning of to "mess up" or "break".

Again, however, this is something that was working perfectly fine before Sprint monkeyed it up.
Forum post from 2011 (Sprint is an ISP I believe.)

Maybe I monkeyed it up when I installed the patch, I don't know. I just know a clean install from the SP2 CD worked fine.
Cakewalk forums, posted in 2007

Unless I monkeyed it up, I think I set up a Discord server for my Twitch subs?! In Discord just go to User Setting > Connections > Twitch to connect, then hit join on my server...I think?!
Someone's tweet on 21 August 2018

My Son was given a scooter free...really. A neighbor had it and his son got a flat and decided to try and fix it but really monkeyed it up then refused to try to do it proper.
Forum post from 2014

Thank you, that was all I wanted, just instances of the phrase being used elsewhere, as I couldn't find any unrelated to the Fox News incident when I searched the first time around. I think this was due to the fact that the incident happened only a few days ago and was somewhat controversial, so the search engines inundated me with results related to the Fox News interview.

  • Are these a sample, or the sum total of examples you've found? – 1006a Sep 2 '18 at 23:27
  • @1006a A sample. I found more, but not that many. I could find more, but this satisfied me. This phrase was uttered by a Florida politician a few days ago about a black candidate for Governor of Florida. Because it's been controversial it's not only all over social media but also been reported on CNN, NBC, Huffington Post etc. Given these circumstances it wasn't that easy (for me at least) sifting out the totally unrelated instances of this phrase with the same meaning as has been used by Ron DeSantis. I also found false positives such as "he monkeyed up the tree" and things of that sort. – Zebrafish Sep 2 '18 at 23:44
  • @1006a Also, it's impossible for me to judge whether it's common or not colloquially because so many results are of those reporting on what Mr DeSantis said. One thing I'm fairly confident in saying though is that it's very informal. The ones I found were mostly forum posts, and "monkey up" doesn't appear in any dictionary I'm aware of. Monkey around/about do, but they mean quite different things from "monkey up" as used by Mr DeSantis. – Zebrafish Sep 2 '18 at 23:50

Apart from the more or less subtle racial and political implications which the use of the term monkey may convey in the context cited above, I think that its meaning is just a small extension of the connotation of the verb monkey , as explained in the Green’s Dictionary of Slang:

To monkey, also monkey about, monkey around, monkey with:

  • [late 19C+] (orig. US) to fool around, to tamper, to fiddle, usually in a destructive clumsy manner, occasionally used as a synonym for the expression ‘to busy one’s self’ with anything, but it cannot be legitimately used of honest, useful work, except when such work is either badly done or is undertaken as a recreation rather than as a legitimate business.

Historically, "monkey up" has been used to describe a number of particular actions, from more or less literal (to climb nimbly, as a monkey might) to speculative (to botch something up, as a monkey might if it attempted to perform a serious or difficult task) to obviously fanciful (dress ridiculously, in accordance with a monkey's notion of high style). Here are some historical instances of the various senses of "monkey up," in the specific form "monkeyed up."

'monkey up' as 'climb swiftly and nimbly'

From "Puck's History of Oireland," in [U.S.] Puck (March 12, 1879):

How the ould ancient Oirish got up to the top of the towers to dhraw a sup o' shmoke is not known; but, as was related in a former chapter, Prof. Fitz-McO'Darwin claims that they were undoubtedly the originators of the white race; from their plainly perceptible caudal appendages, it is possible they monkeyed up to the top of the towers for their whiff. (Again regard fig. 2.)

And from Ntemfac Ofege, Hot Water for the Famous Seven (2008):

The boys set the raid in motion. They sneaked into the orchard through some holes in the barbed wire fence and immediately monkeyed it up some well-laden fruit trees.

'monkey up' as 'dress elaborately or ridiculously'

From Samuel Crockett, Little Esson (1907):

"You should see her in pale sea-green, with a tall gold lily in her hand," began Fuzzy Wells, with the unction of reminiscence.

"Your grandmother!" snapped John Glencairn, "d'ye suppose, Fuzzy, that she would come through the streets of Creelport monkeyed up like one of old Hodder's draped models at the Life Class?"

'monkey up' as 'improperly perform, clog, get stuck, or otherwise get damaged'

From Joshua Ramsbotham, "Demolition of Old Masonry and Concrete," in Transactions of the Liverpool Engineering Society, Thirty-fifth Session (November 18, 1908):

The × bit clears better in hard rock, and the chances of rifling the hole and getting "monkeyed up" are reduced, as by the formation of the bit, the possibility of the cutting edge striking twice in the same place is reduced to a minimum. The smith responsible for ...

'monkey up' as 'sneaking or wandering through'

From The Strand, volume 6 (1921) [combined snippets]:

"Seems kinder hard luck, doesn't it?" he said cheerfully. "The fact is, I haven't been back home since the war. I was out in France with the Y.M.C.A., and when we got through I didn't feel I could face these new laws, monkeying up side-streets for your liquor, or taking a drink behind a screen at a Chemist's. Most of my friends were coming across pretty regularly, so I just stayed over on this side."

'monkey up' as 'botch, bungle, or ruin through interference'

From Upholsterers' International Union of North America, Summary of Proceedings Including Report of the Officers to the Convention (1927):

Mr. Chairman, I would rather have you throw that resolution out the window than to monkey it up the way it has been monkeyed up. We want the work in our district. We want the carpet and linoleum mechanics organized and we can never organize them so long as we are going along the lines that we are now, and allowing firms to pay the same payroll to union men in one place and nonunion men in other places.

And from Happy Herd Herald (2002) [snippet view]:

This year I will try to make 3 gallons of the native American [grape] variety known as Delaware. Last year I royally monkeyed it up, and the results were laughable. I tried to be a hero! This year I'm going by the book and making a normal white, the way it's supposed to be done. I love Delaware, when it's done properly it is a serious white, my favorite native, very underrated, and in my opinion can stand upon to any of the fancy varieties.

'monkey up' as 'tangled up or misunderstood'

From Proceedings of the National Fraternal Congress of America (1934) [combined snippets]:

We made this Committee go out and work two years, and now we come up and say, "You haven't brains enough to present anything." We haven't waited to get their explanation. I have heard men talk on this who haven't listened, haven't heard that wonderful report which was given on Monday, and I think they have got this all monkeyed up, because that report would convince a blind, deaf and dumb man, if he were here and heard it, as a business proposition—as a business proposition.

'monkey up' as 'imaginatively concoct'

From Robert Lindsay, Fowl Murder: The Mystery of Between the Lines (1941) [combined snippets]:

"Your guess work is intriguing, and I'll admit that if my affairs were as you suggest, proving George insane would give the opportunity to straighten them out."

"And that's why you monkey up this scheme with Harold."

"One moment. You've contributed a story, which, I claim, is largely fiction. Now I shall contribute some truth."

And from Meredith Willson, Eggs I Have Laid (1955) [combined snippets]:

Fast reaching the phobia stage with respect to being isolated in the parlor for an hour every day with a flute, I monkeyed-up the idea of propping the Youth's Companion on my music stand. Knowing the exercises by heart, my fingers and lips went their chore-ful way while my "mental brain" (to quote Sadie Teed, our hard-girl at the time) was being absorbed in my first amazed excursions into magazine-land.

'monkey up' as 'make needlessly fancy'

From The American Magazine, volume 156 (1953):

He decided, once more, that the best music is the simplest and "least monkeyed-up."

And from National Research Council, Special Report, issues 122–124 (1971):

What worries me more is the question of vehicle design. Do you use a Ford Courier, or a "monkeyed-up" General Motors vehicle, or something else? I am worried that we will go into these things in a hurry and in a fashion that will mar the image and the public response to a demand-responsive jitney.

'monkey up' as 'make a burlesque of'

From The Listener, volume 61 (1959) [combined snippets]:

Didrot's rationalistic pipe-dream about Tahiian man, in a South Pacific Eden, as a natural, noble, simple, and highly sensual machine, remains a remarkably cogent absurdity. Rousseau would have sentimentalized it; Voltaire would have monkeyed it up, but Diderot invested it with a lucid vehemence. The eloquence and paradox of this model dialogue are still very much alive, and the speakers in this programme gave them all their performing value.

'monkey up' as 'have a photographer on hand'

From Sue Margolis, Neurotica: A Novel (2003):

"Anna, angel . . . thought I'd give you a quick bell just to check that you're all monkeyed up for tonight."

It was Campbell in old-style Fleet Street vernacular mood, checking she'd been assigned a photographer—a monkey—for her assignment.

'monkey up' as 'capering about or otherwise behaving like a monkey'

From Daniel Nemiroff, Nasty, Short and Brutal (2006):

"Itsa no use," Gil moans. "Nobody a-wanna see my monkey no more!" Fast forward through Gil pouring his heart out to the crowd, Mickey [Solomon] monkeying it up, jumping into people's laps, kissing women and picking their pockets.

"Ah, but watta can I a-do, my little a-monkey-friend?" Gil finally sighs.

"Talk with a better Italian accent than that," Mickey snaps back through his monkey smile, that knowing primate grin on the backdrop of his fine, slight features that made all the girls swoon.

And from Mick Middles, Breaking Into Heaven: The Rise, Fall & Resurrection of The Stone Roses (2012):

However, the true drama occurred less than a minute into the song, when the Roses' amplification proved too much for the Beeb's power supply, which cut out – all sound abruptly ceased, leaving the band suddenly strumming silent guitars and Ian Brown monkeying it up to no effect at all.


The unaddressed 'monkey' in the room

Of course, all of these senses of "monkey up" coexist with longstanding scurrilous meanings of monkey, noted in Jonathon Green, Cassell's Ditionary of Slang (2005):

monkey n. 1 {late 16C+} [19C+] a scamp, a rascal, 2 {19C+} a general insult, esp. when used derog. since mid-19C by White people of a Black or Asian person (cf. AFRICAN APE n.; BROWNIE n.). 3 {19C+} a person. 4 {20C+} (Aus./US) (also monkey man) a Chinese person; a Mongolian (cf. AH CABBAGE n.). 5 {1900s–40s} (US Black) a West Indian. 6 {1910s+} (Aus./US) a Japanese person (cf. BUDDHAHEAD n.). 7 {1910s+} a thug, spec. one with no intelligence. 8 {1920s} (US tramp) a member of the public, a non-tramp. 9 {1920s+} (US Und.) a victim of a swindler, a dupe. 10 {1930s–40s} (US Und.) a prohibition agent. 11 {1940s+} (US prison) a correctional officer. 12 {1970s+} (US Black) a White person. {(1) now S[tandard] E[nglish]}

That is to say, since the middle of the 1800s, the term monkey has been used as a racial or ethnic insult by members of various groups of people for members of other groups of people—and the first such widespread explicitly racial usage of the term in English, according to Green, was by white speakers referring to black people. Any use of "monkey" by a white person in discussing the motives or behavior of a black person carries this baggage with it—whether or not the particular instance of usage is innocent of any intention to convey an invidious racial subtext.



Although I found instances of "monkey [something] up" in the sense of bungle or mess [something] up going back to 1927, the usage is actually somewhat rare. Various other senses of the expression "monkey up" also appear in the historical record, with more or less connection to monkeys and their real or supposed behavior.

In all of the senses noted above, "monkey up" does not necessarily imply racial or ethnic hostility on the part of the speaker toward the person whose behavior is being equated literally or figuratively with that of a monkey. But I think that longtime, unmistakably pejorative use of monkey across racial or ethnic lines casts a shadow over any application of the phrase by a speaker or writer to people of a different race or ethnicity. I wouldn't hesitate to refer to myself as having monkeyed something up, but there are a great many other people in the world whom I would be loath to characterize in that way.

  • There sure are a lot of ways "monkey up" can be used. I had no idea it had this many meanings. This really goes to show the inadequacy of dictionaries to find what terms actually mean in the spoken language. Something like a slang dictionary such as Urban Dictionary may help out, but I feel some of the meanings conveyed in your samples won't have a definition found anywhere. I assume in each case you inferred the meaning from each passage from the context. – Zebrafish Sep 5 '18 at 17:53
  • @Zebrafish: Yes. These are my context-based subjective interpretations of the intended meaning of the highlighted phrase in each passage. In a couple of instances I initially tried to reduce the number of categories by consolidating examples under a single definition but subsequently concluded that doing so did not adequately reflect the specific sense (as I understood it) of the phrase. Dictionaries tend to treat word definitions similarly to rings of electron orbits around an atomic nucleus, whereas (I think) a truer representation of real-world usage would involve quantum clouds of meaning. – Sven Yargs Sep 5 '18 at 18:14

I've never actually heard this specific phrase "monkey it up" but even at that I didn't take it as a racial slur. Media seems to be hell bent to associate the word or animal (monkey) with the black race. It's shameful and embarrassing. But I digress.

Phrases I grew up with were from my parents, like: "Don't monkey with it! You'll break it or mess it up." And to "Throw a monkey wrench." in something meant to deliberately slow someone or somethings progress down. To screw someone else up so you could win the race.

Like you everything I find today attributes "monkey this up" as a racial slur and while I don't like the man that said this... I really appreciate the fact that the Mayor didn't take the bait of being insulted. He admitted to not being familiar with the phrase.

I think the white politician was insulting by intimating that the Florida Mayor would potentially screw things up if he became governor.

protected by tchrist Sep 2 '18 at 18:15

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