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In her book Toward Zero, author Agatha Christie has the following dialogue:

Kay said: ‘I don’t like my colour scheme in the livingroom. Can I have it done over, Nevile?’

‘Anything you like, beautiful.’

‘Peacock blue,’ said Kay dreamily, ‘and ivory satin cushions.’

‘You’ll have to throw in an ape,’ said Nevile.

‘You can be the ape,’ said Kay.

What on earth is that supposed to mean, "throw in an ape"? I have no idea. Is that an expression?

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2 Answers 2

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It's not an expression. It's a reference to a poem Cargoes by John Masefield. It was extremely popular in Agatha Christie's time, and most of her readers would be familiar with it.

The first stanza goes:

Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir,
Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine,
With a cargo of ivory,
And apes and peacocks,
Sandalwood, cedarwood, and sweet white wine

Kay has asked for peacock and ivory to be in her decor, and Nevile says she will have to "throw in" (i.e. include) an ape to complete the set.

The poem itself references a Bible passage (1 Kings 10:22 and 2 Chronicles 9:21)

Once in three years came the navy of Tharshish, bringing gold, and silver, ivory, and apes, and peacocks.

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  • 22
    Well, well, I would not have found that in a million years. Thanks.
    – thedude
    Mar 14, 2023 at 22:40
  • 11
    did you just know this or did you find it out?
    – WendyG
    Mar 15, 2023 at 11:37
  • 39
    Well that's certainly a "Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra"... Mar 15, 2023 at 12:16
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    @WendyG I knew the poem, and recognized the list of items. Mar 15, 2023 at 15:24
  • 16
    The "throw in" part is an expression; the meaning "include as part of an offer" is not at all obvious from a literal gloss of the words. Mar 15, 2023 at 20:49
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DJClayworth’s answer explains the humurous allusion in the line, but it’s worth also explaining the idiomatic meaning of the sentence (independently of the allusion), which would be clear to most native British speakers but may not be obvious to non-natives.

In many contexts, especially negotiation/bargaining, to throw in something means to add it to the offer under discussion. “This bicycle is a hundred dollars.” “Too expensive, it’s old and rusty.” “I’ll throw in the lock and lights as well.” “OK, it’s a deal.” In the linked quote, Kay and Nevile are discussing redecorating the room, and Kay has described what she wants in the new decoration. In that context, Nevile’s “You’ll have to throw in an ape” means “you should add an ape to your proposed decorations”.

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    As a native American speaker I immediately went to this interpretation even though I was not aware of the poem to have any idea why an ape should be added. Mar 16, 2023 at 23:31
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    Where is the bargaining, the negotiation and the dealing between the two protagonists? In the Agatha Christie's excerpt, the "peacock blue", the white (ivory) satin cushions, refer to the room's colour scheme. The "throw in", whose meaning is easily deducible for advanced learners, means add. Neville's remark is a witticism, of course there is no suggestion that she should actually include an ape. Extra info: The detective novel was first printed in 1944 whereas the poem, which I have never heard of until today despite being born in London in 1966, was published in 1902.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Mar 17, 2023 at 11:40

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