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Wrenching an etymology out of a monkey

By Anatoly Liberman

Primates have given Germanic language historians great trouble. In the most recent dictionary of German etymology (Kluge-Seebold), the entry Affe “ape” is one of the most detailed. In the revised version of the OED, monkey is also discussed at a length, otherwise rare in this online edition. Despite the multitude of hypotheses, the sought-for solution is not in view. (Mine, however, will appear at the end of the present post.) Only one thing is clear: wherever the ancestors of the modern Germanic speakers lived, including the southernmost areas of the lands they once inhabited (Italy and the shores of the Black Sea), they could not observe monkeys and apes roaming tropical woods. This means that the names of both animals are, most probably, borrowed.

No extant citation of monkey predates 1530 (so the OED), and the word cannot be much older. Before the sixteenth century, ape was the generic term for both species. The question is about the original land of the import. The suspects are two: northern Germany and some Romance country. In Spanish, mona (feminine) and mono (masculine) resemble monkey, and in Middle French monne (Modern French mone) has been attested. Likewise, Italian had monna ~ mona. The source of those words remains undiscovered; clearly, monkeys were as foreign to the Romance speaking lands as they were to the English and Germans. In the nineteenth century, etymologists accepted the explanation of Friedrich Diez, the founder of Romance comparative philology, who looked upon mona as a “corruption” of Madonna. He based his conclusion on the fact that the name of a female monkey surfaced before the name of its masculine partner.

Skeat, The Century Dictionary, and others followed him, though Skeat suggested that monkey was an alteration of Old Italian monicchio, a diminutive of monna. He traced it back to Latin domina and referred to Madonna “my lady”: “The degradation of the term is certainly very great; but there is an exactly parallel instance in the case of the term dam, which has been degraded from the Latin domina, in French ‘notre dame’, till it now means only the mother of racehorse, or of a less important animal.” This reconstruction is but slightly different from Diez’s. Later researchers went to Greece, Turkey, India, and the Arab lands for the elusive etymon. I am leaving out of account a few fanciful suggestions that may amuse but not enlighten our readers. In no modern Romance language, except Spanish, is mono the main name of the monkey. In Italy, it turned up in 1438, a century before it reached an English book. The first French citation goes back to 1545.

The central argument in my reasoning resolves itself into the following. The English hardly coined the word monkey; they must have borrowed it. Therefore, I have no sympathy for the conjecture of Klaus Dietz (not to be confused with Friedrich Diez!) that monkey is a native word, made up of the root monk and the suffix –ie ~ -(e)y. Little capuchin monkeys allegedly resembled little Capuchin friars; moreover, apes were traditionally used in satiric portrayals of the clergy. Dietz advanced his idea in 2006 and wrote a short article on this subject in 2008. The most recent entry in the OED online testifies to Dietz’s influence. Long ago, Eduard Mueller (or Müller) remarked in his useful but now forgotten dictionary of English etymology (1865-67; 1878) that English speakers could not help noticing a strong resemblance between monkey and both monk and man. Before him, Franciscus Junius (1743; a posthumous edition) had the same idea, and in 1863 August Lübben considered but rejected this possibility. I also refuse to treat monkey as a word initially endowed with the sense “little monk.”

William Caxton, the first English printer. In 1481 he brought out his translation of the Dutch version of Reynard. The Booke of Reynarde the Foxe (in prose; the original is a versified poem) is a delight to read. It exists in several excellent modern editions.

Another theory takes us to the famous Low German animal epic Reynke de Vos (1498) or (in French) Reynard the Fox. In it Martin the ape has a son Moneke; in French, the “youngster” is called Monnekin. Both –ke and –kin are familiar diminutive suffixes: compare Engl. manikin, another word strongly resembling monkey. Some scholars thought that Moneke had come to England with German traveling showmen or by some such route. But there are problems with this idea: the vowels of monkey (whose first syllable rhymes with dun rather than don) and Moneke do not match, and nothing testifies to the popularity of the poem’s fame in England in the first quarter of the sixteenth century. The name of Martin’s son occurs only once in the poem, and it is unbelievable that it could have stayed in people’s memory and caught their fancy to such an extent as to cause the formation of a new word. Dietz makes this point, and his objections to the Moneke theory, contrary to his etymology, are irrefutable.

The real question is why the ape’s son bore the name Moneke, and it was answered ingeniously and, I think, persuasively, in 1869, but etymologists have a short memory, which is not their fault, for without exhaustive bibliographies unearthing a relevant note with a vague title is impossible. Moneke was a familiar name for Simoneke, that is, Simon. Simon is a Greek word, derived from the adjective simós “snub-nosed” or “flat-nosed,” and the meaning of the name was known, even though in the late Middle Ages few people may have realized that Simon had been confused with Hebrew Simeon. Apparently, Moneke “the flat-nosed,” was, in addition to the pet name for Simoneke, a slang word for “monkey,” with reference to the German-Latin pun, for the Latin for “monkey” was simia (a borrowing from Greek; feminine, like Modern French guenon and the Romance words, cited above). Judging by Dutch simminkel, the unattested Latin simiuncula “little monkey” also had some currency; hence the name of the ape’s son in Reynke. It is this word that must have become known in England. In German and Dutch it did not stay, but in English it did. The phonetic difficulties (the quality of the stressed vowels) are hardly insurmountable here. To be sure, I have no proof that moneke “monkey” existed, but if this word had been recorded, the riddle would have been solved centuries ago and saved us a lot of monkey business. In any case, Martin must have had a good reason for calling his son Moneke.

Something should also be said about the Romance words. One might suggest that in French and Spanish we are dealing with the Germanic noun that lost its suffix, but this would hardly be a convincing solution. Also, Italian mona was recorded a hundred years before monkey surfaced in English, and a loan from German or Dutch is probably out of the question. I would risk the hypothesis that the Romance names of the monkey have nothing to do with their Germanic look-alikes. In Kanarese, a Dravidian language, the male monkey is called manga; a related Tamil noun sounds mandi. One may perhaps ask whether a migratory culture word for the monkey, known from India to northern Germany, enjoyed some popularity in the past. It may not be for nothing that so many similar simian forms have been found. If some such word traveled with the animal, in every country speakers would adapt it slightly under the influence of folk etymology. Whatever the answer, I believe that, as regards the etymology of Engl. monkey, both monks and the medieval animal epic should be left in peace.

Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Themas well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him care of [email protected]; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

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Recent Comments

  1. Cameron

    In Persian, the word for monkey is میمون

    This is pronounced /meɪmun/ . I have no idea of its antiquity. That is might be a borrowing from an Indic language is quite plausible. It certainly isn’t borrowed from Arabic.

  2. Macumazan

    What is the word for monkey in Romany? Gypsies had an Indian origin and travelled right across Europe and to England. Had they brought monkeys as pets, all the conditions mentioned would obtain.

  3. […] defer judgment with regard to the word for “monkey” in Arabic, Farsi, and Romany. At the end of my post on monkey, I suggested that we might be dealing with a migratory animal name. If I am right, the etymology of […]

  4. […] Monkey. Have I answered our correspondent who asked me whether anyone had noticed that the word monkey sounds very much like Malay monyet and others? Yes, the similarity is well-known. See my post for 23 January 2013. […]

  5. […] defer judgment with regard to the word for “monkey” in Arabic, Farsi, and Romany. At the end of my post on monkey, I suggested that we might be dealing with a migratory animal name. If I am right, the etymology of […]

  6. Carson Barnes

    Let’s not forget the possible introduction via north Africa during the Moorish occupation of Spain; all those people would have known monkeys from direct experience, certainly having seeing the ones on Gibraltar and in Morocco, as well as occasional imported novelties from sub-Saharan Africa.

  7. Rene de Vreede

    What about Indonesian monyet? Sanskrit plays an important role is a lot of Indonesian words. Maybe there is link here.

  8. Peter Garner

    Hahah The Word Monkey is derived from the Roma/Traveller Mung Jivo which in Traveller is pronounced with uvular trill like “Mung Khjjvio” Mung = Beg. Jivo = Shiva, a monkey is a “Begging Stealing Shiva”. It refers both to the role played by the OrganGrinders Mate (be it human or simian) and the role Monkeys play in Indian society. (Ask an Indian Housewife what she thinks of Monkeys!)

  9. Peter Garner

    As an aside, Mung Jhivo is also the etymology of the American slang verb “to Jive”, to meaning both to dance and to behave as if you were a destructive child: postive example from popular Music “They all doing that crazy hand jive!” (meaning to dance)

    And “Stop that, you’re jiving!” Meaning you are acting like a naughty destructive child. In Roma language “Jivo” literally means a small boy where in Traveller’s cant it refers to anyone behaving childishly.

    But in both cases they are references to “Shiva”.

  10. […] Wrenching an etymology out of a monkey […]

  11. Everett Walker

    Wouldn’t it be nice if Monkey was a short form of Homunculus?
    Too Easy I guess

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