I wonder if "ape" is the generic, more general term than "monkey". Can one say that all primates (including monkeys) except lemurs, humans and some other few species are apes?


There's technical usage and there's common usage.

The technical usage is determined by the biological community and there the usage states that chimps, gorillas, humans, and gibbons are apes, and that there is a distinct category of monkeys that split into New World (spider monkeys, etc) with tails) and Old world monkeys (e.g. macaques and baboons). That is, monkeys and apes are separate groups, a monkey is not an ape and an ape is not a monkey.

As to common (informal, non-technical usage), monkey includes most primates: chimps and baboons and the canonical tree swinging monkey, possibly gorillas but not humans at all. At the zoo, in the great ape house, most people will point at the animals and say 'look at the big monkey' and some kid will say 'that's not a monkey, it's an ape'.

So if anything, informally, it's the other way around, 'ape' is used as a kind of monkey. But don't use that around anybody who actually knows anything.

But technically apes and monkeys do not overlap (though obviously related as primates).

  • Call a gorilla (or any other ape) a "monkey" in front of more than 2 people, and I can pretty much guarantee one of them will correct you. – T.E.D. Jul 31 '12 at 15:22
  • @T.E.D.: Yes, exactly my point with 'possibly gorillas' and 'in the great ape house'. Now that I think of it, I'd expect the same thing for a chimp, but I expect it'd be more likely for someone to start that exchange than for a gorilla. – Mitch Jul 31 '12 at 15:36

This isn't really an "English" question but more a "taxonomy" question. But in the current taxonomy, monkeys are not a subset of apes. Rather, monkeys and apes are two distinct subsets of primates.

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    I do not know about taxonomy, but in Russian there is only one word for the both. That's why I asked. It is also possible that English colloquial usage differs. So you say "apes" cannot be used as a general term? – Anixx Jul 31 '12 at 2:45
  • I was going to say the same thing. The superset is "Primate" and "monkey", "ape", and "lemur" (and possibly others) are each subsets. – TecBrat Jul 31 '12 at 13:04
  • @TecBrat There is at least one other obscure and often forgotten group within primates: humans. – Jay Jul 31 '12 at 13:42
  • @Jay: No, humans are part of the subset "apes". – TecBrat Jul 31 '12 at 13:44
  • @TecBrat Well, apes and humans are typically grouped together as "hominoidea", but that doesn't make humans a subset of apes, any more than the fact that both apes and monkeys are called primates makes apes a subset of monkeys. See, e.g. emory.edu/LIVING_LINKS/pdf_attachments/PRIMATE%20TAXONOMY.pdf, which divides hominoidea into 3 families: gibbons, apes, and humans. Of course classification systems are human inventions. It is not a scientific fact that hominoidea are divided into 3 families and not 2 or 4, in the sense that I could perform some experiment ... – Jay Jul 31 '12 at 14:16

Ape refers to the clade of animals belonging to the superfamily Hominoidea, which is the same superfamily that contains Homo sapiens. Humans, in other words, are biologically apes.

Monkey, on the other hand, is not a clade, since there are two different groups, the Catarrhine or "Old World" monkeys (superfamily Cercopithecoidea, found in Africa and Eurasia only) and the Platyrrhine or "New World" monkeys (found in the Americas only -- these are the ones with prehensile tails). The apes are related more closely to the Old World monkeys.

Consequently, if anything, ape is a subset of monkey, rather than the other way around. Though that's not strictly true, either. Check the tree diagram on the "Primates" Wikipedia page that tchrist mentioned to see the details.


Simians is the term I would use for the "higher" primates. Simian means monkey-like, and the term does correspond to a scientific classification, Simiiformes. Primates is arguable more common, but if we are to be as scientific as the previous answers demand, we must note that primates include lemurs, tarsiers, and other animals which many people would not understand to be closely related to monkeys and apes, as wellas humans.

In everyday speaking, most people will use apes and monkeys interchangeably as the umbrella term, either out of ignorance of the scientific distinction or for the sake of simplicity. This is loosely comparable to calling all dogs hounds or referring to horses as ponies— it may be incorrect, but in non-academic arenas, it gets the sense across.

  • So what term is more common in colloquial - apes or monkeys? – Anixx Jul 31 '12 at 18:10
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    @Anixx It is impossible to say for certain, as both are common as well as mixed into many other terms and expressions— ape house, monkey wrench, going ape, monkey business, apeshit, monkey model, apeman, and so on. – choster Jul 31 '12 at 20:21

This is really a taxonomy question, but since there is no Taxonomy.SE...

Both belong to an order commonly called Primates. While this isn't technically correct, you can consider primates as being split into "simians" and "prosimians" (these words aren't used a lot, but sometimes you will hear them in conversational English). Mostly "prosimians" are lemurs.

"Simians" are generally split up into monkeys and apes. They are separate things. This is important because if you call an animal that is considered an ape a "monkey" (or visa versa), some brainiac is bound to correct you. That's annoying enough IMHO to learn the difference. :-)

Monkeys are a rather diverse grouping. Mostly they are smallish tree-dwelling primates (who are not lemurs), although Baboons are monkeys, are rather large, and live on the African savannah.

So generally what you do is learn what Apes are, and you are fairly safe in calling all other primates (not found on Madagascar) "monkeys".

So what are Apes? They are Gibbons, Siamangs (collectively known as lesser apes), and Orangutans, Gorillas, Chimpanzees, Bonobos, and Man (collectively known as greater apes).

Humans of course are a special case. There are those who (generally in my experience for religous reasons) insist Humans are not animals, and thus certianly aren't apes. They tend to feel very strongly about this, so I would advise against referring to humans as "apes" either, unless you know for a fact your audience doesn't include any such people.

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    Alas poor Loris! I knew him, Horatio. You also neglect the bushbabies. – tchrist Jul 31 '12 at 14:13
  • BZZT: Orangutangs are great apes, not lesser ones. And how can you tell whether you have any apes in the audience? – tchrist Jul 31 '12 at 14:14
  • @tchrist - Fixing the Orang bit (along with the spelling. Needed to check both, but RL intruded). As for other technicalities, I stated up front (see paragraph 2, and all the uses of words like "generally") I'm avoiding those. They don't come up in conversation hardly ever, and don't affect what I'm trying to say here. – T.E.D. Jul 31 '12 at 14:49

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