Space for our cousins

Our closest cousins in the animal world are the chimpanzees. We and the chimpanzees are more closely related than say the chimpanzees and the Gibbons another member of the ape family. Apes and monkeys are liberally strewn around the dictionary and in the idioms built around them.

Younger children are fascinated when we mimic their body movements. They put out their tongue, we put out ours, they close their eyes with their hands and we do the same, they wave their fingers and we wave ours, the game can go on to the utter fascination of both involved. Sometimes slightly older children who have begun to talk, start repeating what another person has said and yet another game of vocal imitating has begun. Aping someone is an idiom which means doing what the other person is doing as in the two examples of children above. When we get irritated by someone following our trend, we tell them, ‘don’t ape me.’ Children learn by observing what the adults around them do. Imitating is the easiest form of learning for anyone. Monkey see, monkey do is the term we use sometimes seriously and at times mockingly to refer to this form of learning. When we see someone yawning we get the urge to yawn too, another form of uncontrollable imitation. We don’t sneeze when someone sneezed though. If you thought you were unique species to sneeze you are wrong, the recently discovered Burmese monkeys sneeze when it starts raining. There you have your unique position yanked out from your feet.

Are apes and monkeys the same? Generally speaking, Apes refers to the tailless monkeys like Gorillas, Chimpanzees, Bonobos, Orangutans and GIbbons. The tailed variety is usually referred to as monkeys. Monkeys generally prefer to stay in trees rather than on the ground. They use their tails to balance as they move from tree to tree. They can perform great acrobatic feats using their tails and flexible limbs. Monkeying around is a term used to mean fooling around, behaving in a silly manner, not serious etc. ‘Stop monkeying around and get to work,’ conveys the meaning. We might think that humans when monkeying around are very loud and make a lot of noise but the prize for the loudest primate is reserved for the Howler Monkey. The Male Howler Monkey is not just loudest primate ever known but also amongst the loudest animals in the world. The louder the Howler Monkey the smaller its testicles and sperm count and I don’t know why I mentioned that. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental.

Monkeys are more active than the apes. They are constantly on the move and also on the lookout for doing some mischief. Monkey business is a term used to denote something mischievous or even fishy. Oh, there we combine another creature, the fish with the monkeys! “The company has stopped paying dividends for the past two years, I feel they are up to some monkey business.” “I am leaving my son with you for an hour, keep an eye on him or he will be up to some monkey business.” All monkey business is to be treated with caution.

When we want to ignore someone or something and claim it is not our responsibility, we can say, not my circus not my monkeys. The term conveys that it is not my business, monkey or otherwise. It also conveys the notion that I don’t control anything in the situation.

Humans don’t like being compared with the monkey, all comparisons have a pejorative connotation. Make a monkey of out of someone is to make them look silly. “He refused my offer of monetary help and made a monkey out of me.”

Monkeys and apes are social creatures meaning they hang around in groups and are not solitary creatures like say the tiger. Being social, they are cooperative creatures helping one another in the group and at times helping other creatures too. Monkeys on an island in Japan groom and share their food with the local population of deer and get a free ride on the back of the deer. Our habit of taking a lift has a long history and you did not know that.

When we observe a group of monkeys either in the wild or in captivity they give the impression of having a lot of fun around although we don’t catch them laughing or smiling. Laughing and smiling is something that is the domain of the ‘higher ape’ if we can call ourselves that. No other creature has been found to smile or laugh as we do. Having more fun than a barrel of monkeys would mean having a rollicking time although I doubt if the monkeys would have fun cooped inside a barrel. Perhaps they can’t say this in Australia and Antarctica as they are the only continents bereft of monkeys.

There are more than 260 species of monkeys in the world and some of the monkeys have another animal attached to their name – squirrel monkeys, spider monkey etc. Though monkeys are creatures that are awake in the day and sleep in the night, there is one species of the monkeys that are awake in the night and guess what they are called? Owl Monkeys. Squirrel, Spider, Owl, they have another animal tagging on their back and if we have a problem on our back which we want to get rid off we can use the term, ‘getting the monkey off your back.’ This generally refers to a persistent or chronic problem. “I have been running my credit card debts for decades, I want to get the monkey off my back.” The term is used in only one form – off your back. There is no getting the monkey on your back. Perhaps only when we discover the chronic problem we label it as a monkey.

Monkeys are very curious creatures (where did you think you got the trait from?) and become excited when they see something new in their surroundings. In the forest, many animals rely on the monkey to spot a snake and give out the excited calls. Many a predator like the lion and the tiger have had their hunt spoiled by a monkey which saw them early and let out excited shrieks to warn the other prey animals around. Go ape over means get excited or rather overexcited. My kids go ape over ice-creams, My son goes ape over the music band. Teenagers use the word, ‘psycho’ for overexcited. “She goes psycho when she sees that film star.”

Some objects have also got the word monkey attached to them. The exercise bars or the jungle gym is also called monkey bars. The adjustable wrench that you might have seen the local plumber carry around is called the monkey wrench. There is a dish called the monkey bread. A rope bridge across a waterway is called a monkey bridge. Ape hangers are handlebars on the long distance motorcycles and I don’t think it got any connection with the riders though!

That’s about some of the monkeys and apes in our idiomatic use of the language.
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