When did a barrel of monkeys become the standard for fun? The phrase “more fun than a barrel of monkeys” is somewhat common. Where did it come from?
My web searches have turned up nothing relevent (the domain belongs to an electronics store and I found a lot of auctions for the toy and several Lego sites for some reason) and I haven’t found anything in any phrase dictionaries except the alternate versions “barrel load of monkeys” and “barrel full of monkeys”.
Was there ever an amusement involving monkeys in a barrel; say at a circus sideshow? Is this a euphemism for sex? (Isn’t everything?) Did the phrase originate with the “Barrel of Monkeys” toy? (I’ve assumed the toy came after the phrase but am willing to be demonstrated wrong.)
“You can’t run away forever; but there’s nothing wrong with getting a good head start.” — Jim Steinman
Believe it or not many years ago in the old west there was a man who had gotten quite bored with the normal ideas of fun. He decided that he needed to come up with new ways to have fun.
First he looked at how the children played with sticks and the rings that go around the barrels and noticed the fun they had. He decided that if a ring from a barrel was fun then the whole barrel would be even better.
The only problem was the barrel did not roll well just with the stick and running along beside it. Next he tried climbing in the barrel and rolling down the hill in it. This of course made him quite dizzy. This led to him discovering he did not need whiskey to get that lightheaded feeling.
Next he tried going over a waterfall in the barrel. This was indeed quite fun but after a while it grew tiring.
Next he started experimenting and adding different animals to the barrel with him. He tried cats, too finicky. He tried dogs, too hyper or too calm. He tried snakes, but they tickled too much and gave him the heebie-jeebies. After much experimentation he tried monkeys. This seemed to give him the maximum amount of fun. They were playful but not too hyper. They tickled some, but not as bad as the snakes. They seemed to be the perfect addition to the barrel.
The others in town watched him as he did his testing. Then upon finding out that he considered the barrel full of monkeys to be the most fun, they started using the phrase almost as fun as or as fun as a barrel full of monkeys. Later they changed it to more fun that a barrel full of monkeys.
This spread throughout the land, what with telephone, and television being as predominate as they were.
Soon this became the phrase used all over the country.
So now you know the rest of the story. Or at least as much as I am going to type.
Don’t you love it when a first-time poster revives a long-dead thread? Oh, well…
I have been wondering about the phrase “more fun than a barrel of monkeys” but have been unable to find a plausible account of its origins. I thought about asking Cecil, but he’s a busy man, so I’m posting here first. Nice to know I’m not the only one who’s been puzzled by this important question…
Anyway, I’ve come up with 2 theories, both of which suck.
The phrase “more fun than a barrel of monkeys” is a nostalgic comparison to the children’s game “Barrel of Monkeys.”
The problem with this theory is twofold. First, the game is relatively new (I think), but the expression seems old (the American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms says it appeared in 1895, but they’re not big on footnotes). Second, the game, as I recall, totally sucked. It was just these crappy little plastic monkeys that interlocked arms to make a chain. Which brings me to theory #2.
The phrase “more fun than a barrel of monkeys” is a sarcastic comparison to the children’s game “Barrel of Monkeys.” As in, Q: “How was the movie?” A: “More fun than a Barrel of Monkeys.” Translation: the movie sucked, but not as bad as that crappy game.
Can anyone here enlighten me on the elusive origins of this nifty phrase?
and even she just speculated "One monkey arouses a great deal of amusement. Two more then double the interest and amusement. If one were to release a barrelful of monkeys, we must suppose that their antics would become hilariously comical. "
"e. a barrel (wagon-load, etc.) of monkeys: a type of something extremely cunning, mischievous, jolly, or disorderly, esp. in phr. as artful as a wagon-load of monkeys (and varr.). colloq. "
And goes on to quote various citations, many of which are along the lines of “as clever as…” or “as mischievous as…” Indeed, the OED seems to think “as artful as…” is the most common use. No real indications as to origin, although there is this citation:
“1958 Times 14 Aug. 9/4 A wagon-load of monkeys is, as everyone knows, a conveyance filled to the brim with a superabundance of high spirits, artfulness, and mischief.”
According to this stite, Barrel of Monkeys (the game) came out in 1966, so I think we can definitely rule out an origin from the game.
I found an article in “The Hopewell Herald”, New Jersey, “The fellow who originated the saying “more fun than a barrel of monkeys.” never saw a dog with a tin can tied to it.” June 29, 1881. This, of course, isn’t the origin but refers to the origin being earlier than this date.
Purely a WAG, but a barrel was used and recognised everywhere as a container for all kinds of good, both dry and wet. "A barrel of laughs’ just meant a lot of laughs (The idea that slaves had to laugh into a barrel seems too fantastic to be true) and a barrel of monkeys was just some comedian trying to make the expression even funnier.
There was an allusion in the an 1884 issue of the humor magazine Puck: You are more fun than a barrel of monkeys," said Albacinda to me, the other evening. Now, I am not entering into the question of my humorous capacity. Whether I am or am not more amusing, as a man, than a barrel of monkeys as monkeys, matters little. I cause Albacinda’s chaste breast to thrill with gentle merriment; if I curve the perfect bow of her cherry lips- why, that, beloved reader, is none of your business. It is a private affair, between Albacinda and me.
But the dear girl’s remark furnished me with food for reflection. It is, said I to myself, a most felicitous figure, this barrel of monkeys. It expresses, indeed, the highest potentiality of humor-- the ludicrous raised to the nth.
Now, when you think of it, there can’t be anything funnier than a barrel of monkeys… [goes on for 3 paragraphs, then another, then launches into an attack on a Philadelphia publisher. Then more salaciousness about Albacinda.] The author called himself “Rod Random”. I’m guessing that the phrase was familiar in 1884, not particularly novel.
The Google N-gram viewer shows the phrase starting about 1886, but mixdenny’s 1876 citation is obviously older than that. as I’ve noticed before, you can’t rely on the N-gram viewer for earliest uses, although it’s great for showing trends of usage. It shows the phrase really picking up steam in the 1930s.
I found a probable precursor in the March 23, 1876 [Lawrence] Kansas Tribune. The phrase is from a wry account of the trials and tribulations of prospectors climbing a hill in the west covered with 30 inches of snow.
Similarly, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on Jan. 11, 1878, ran this:
Another early use is in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, December 26, 1880.
The Richmond Enquirer, on Oct. 22, 1844, announced a performance of a drama called “A Box of Monkeys,” which got revived into the 1860s. That may have put the phrase into currency or just a coincidence. I found a record of a ship nicknamed a Box of Monkeys from that period, and the hectic scrambling of sailors may have inspired that name.
The first issue of a magazine called Chatterbox, Dec. 1, 1866, gets close.
Box may have morphed into barrel because of the association of monkeys with organ-grinders, also known as barrel organs.
BTW, the use mixdenny found is a description of a state fair.
Cage of monkeys was used much earlier as something fun. The Bristol Mercury and Daily Post, Western Countries and South Wales Advertiser (Bristol, Bristol, England), 06 Dec 1831, had children laughing at the tricks of a cage of monkeys.
Another English paper, the Liverpool Mercury, etc. (Liverpool, Merseyside, England), 31 Oct 1845, said that the:
The first American use of the phrase is from the [Windsor] Vermont Journal, Sept. 24, 1847, as “the antics of a cage of monkeys.” The Star and Enterprise (Newville, Pennsylvania), Nov. 21, 1868, said “the cage of monkeys was the most ludicrous thing to behold.”
I also found two 1861 uses of cageful of monkeys as an insult. Henry Mayhew, in Young Benjamin Franklin, Or, The Right Road Through Life, used it to describe people who imitate the fad style of the day, the way monkeys copy each other. The Sydney Morning Herald, March 16, makes it more explicit, describing the newly elected Assembly as
There’s chatter, again. Seems like monkeys built up a zoo of similes and metaphors and barrel of monkeys was the one to emerge and last.
I figure that this has already been answered as it’s a REALLY old zombie thread, but just wanted to comment that I slightly modify the saying when I want to imply that it won’t be any fun at all. Basically, the way I say it is ‘yeah, that’s going to be more fun than a barrel of monkey’, because, you know, you can’t really have any fun with just a barrel and a single plastic monkey.