Behind the Dictionary

Lexicographers Talk About Language

Why Do We Say "Monkey See, Monkey Do"?

If the FAA decides to allow  the use of cell phones during airplane flights, and just one airline makes this option available to its passengers, one travel expert predicts that "the other airlines would be sure to follow." In an article on the website, professional travel Edward Pizzarello said that "There's no truer form of monkey see, monkey do" than the US airline industry.

Meanwhile, a piece of click-bait on the Huffington Post offers up ten ways you're sabotaging your workout. Number 10: imitating someone else's exercise routine without knowing the proper technique, or as it's phrased in the article, "the 'monkey see, monkey do' idea of working out."

On a parenting blog, a mother writes about her embarrassing reminder of the importance of modeling good behavior for her children, which arrived when her toddler son dropped a public F-bomb that he'd learned from her. The post is titled "Monkey See, Monkey Do."

Imitation for a good reason, imitation for a stupid reason, or imitation just by instinct: "Monkey see, monkey do" covers them all. But what's with the non-standard grammar? Why isn't it "Monkey sees, monkey does"? For that matter, why don't see and do have a direct object? Why doesn't the count noun monkey have an article before it? Why is it repeated instead of just saying it at the second mention? In short, why isn't it "What a monkey sees, it does?"

This minimal morphology and bare bones syntax, plus the exoticness (exoticity?) of monkeys, gives monkey see, monkey do the feel of a phrase in a pidgin language. A pidgin is a language created in order to conduct business when two sets of speakers don't have a common language. The first such language to be called a pidgin was Chinese Pidgin English, which arose in the 1760s, and actually is the source of such stripped-down expressions as no can do, and two-part phrases like long time, no see and no pain, no gain, which echo the syntax of monkey see, monkey do. However, tempting as such an origin story might be, I haven't found serious evidence for it.

Other online sources claim, always using the same words, that "Monkey see, monkey do is a saying that originated in Jamaica in the early 18th century." This sentence seems to have appeared first on Wikipedia, and to have been repeatedly copied and pasted onto other websites, usually without attribution. None of these sites offers any evidence for a Jamaican origin, and the current Wikipedia entry no longer refers to Jamaica.

A somewhat more likely exotic origin suggested on Wikipedia is West African folklore. In a folktale from Mali, a hat salesman has his entire inventory of hats stolen by monkeys, who grab them while he naps under a tree, and then climb out of his reach. Upon waking, he gestures and screams angrily at the monkeys, only to have them imitate his gesturing and screaming. Finally, he throws his own hat to the ground in frustration. The monkeys do the same, and happy ending ensures.

This story is retold in the 1999 book The Hatseller and the Monkeys, by Baba Wague Diakite, who explains in an author's note that versions of this tale also exist in Egypt, Sudan, India, and England, and "the theme of a peddler having his wares ransacked by monkeys while taking a nap was a popular motif in European art during and after the Middle Ages." If this story sounds familiar from your childhood, but you were a child quite some time before 1999, you're probably thinking of another version of it in the now-classic children's book Caps for Sale by Esphyr Slobodkina, published in 1938.

However, although this story certainly illustrates the concept of "monkey see, monkey do," neither the 1938 nor the 1999 version of actually contains the phrase. But a 1908 version does, in a source that brings us back to China. An instruction book intended for Chinese learners of English, by Fong F. Sec and published in Shanghai in 1908, begins the story this way:

Monkeys are great imitators, hence the saying, "Monkey see, monkey do." One day a traveller was going through a forest carrying many red caps on his way to a market... (link)

Even though this story is aimed at Chinese readers, there is no indication that this phrasing has anything to do with Chinese. Instead, it's presented, like all the other English in the book, as proper and cultured English.

The latest revisions to the Oxford English Dictionary have 1895 for their earliest attestation of monkey see, monkey do, from November 24 in the Philadelphia Inquirer.  However, modern digitized newspaper archives allow some slight antedating, with a surprise in store. The July 16, 1893 issue of the Saint Paul Globe has an advertisement for a shoe sale by a store called the Golden Rule. Of their imitators, they say:

There are one or two side-shows who, by a monkey-see-monkey-does method, do sometimes draw a little trade, but after you buy once you buy no more.

Monkey see, monkey does! A singular ending on one verb, not on the other.

Another example from the Midwest comes a month earlier, in the June 11, 1893 issue of the Milwaukee Sentinel. It's another ad for a shoe sale, which states that the business's competitors try to imitate us, the old saying, "Monkey sees, monkey does," but it will be of no avail, people.

Monkey sees, monkey does! Singular endings on both verbs.

In the previous year, the December 22 issue of the same newspaper has yet another ad for a shoe sale, by the Alexander Boot and Shoe Company, which also uses the phrase Monkey sees, monkey does to disparage a competitor. This is the earliest antedating I've found for the proverb involving monkeys seeing things and doing them, and it has the Standard English singular present-tense suffix on each verb. I take this as further evidence that the phrase did not originate in Chinese Pidgin English.

At this point, we're still left with the question of why see/do is the preferred form today. I can only guess that the change was made by people who assumed the saying had some kind of pidgin origin, and altered it accordingly. And now, of course, we have a new question: What is it with monkey sees, monkey does and all those shoe advertisements? The only attestation of it I found that wasn't in a shoe ad was still in an ad for a clothing store. This one postdates the OED's 1895 example, coming from the August 17, 1897 issue of the San Francisco Call:

In addition to the somewhat more normal phrasing monkey sees, monkey does, a few other forms turn up early on:

Even with all these monkey variants jumping on the bed, so to speak, there is one final example I have to share. This one is about fifty years earlier than the examples from the 1890s, and is from England rather than America. An 1846 issue of Sharpe's London Magazine has an article titled "The Moral Character of the Monkey," which deplores the monkey for its disrespectfulness and excessive curiosity, before observing that "Mimicry is another of the monkey's qualities. Whatever he sees men do, he must affect to do the like himself." Even in the attestations from the 1890s, monkey see, monkey do is assumed to be an old saying, so this still-uncoalesced version involving monkeys seeing and doing could be one step closer to its origin.

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Neal Whitman blogs at Literal-Minded, where he writes about linguistics in everyday life from the point of view of a husband and father. He taught English as a second language while earning his degree at Ohio State University; has published articles in Language, Journal of Linguistics, and other publications; and writes occasional scripts for the podcast "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." Click here to read more articles by Neal Whitman.