‘Monkey Business’ Idiom: The Art Of Trickery and Lies

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Candace Osmond

Candace Osmond studied Advanced Writing & Editing Essentials at MHC. She’s been an International and USA TODAY Bestselling Author for over a decade. And she’s worked as an Editor for several mid-sized publications. Candace has a keen eye for content editing and a high degree of expertise in Fiction.

Monkey business is an idiom used to describe deceitful or silly actions. It’s a phrase that’s embedded itself in the English language, offering a silly way to express disapproval or suspicion of someone’s actions.

Idioms such as monkey business are phrases where the words together have a different meaning than their individual definitions. They’re significant in the English language because they enrich communication by adding color, depth, and cultural context.

In this article, I’ll go over important details about the idiom monkey business, explaining its meanings, origins, various uses, and related terms you can use. I’ll even give ample examples, showcase its place in popular culture, and challenge your understanding with a quiz. So, if you’re ready to know everything about this idiom, keep reading!

Monkey Business Idiom The Art Of Trickery and Lies 1

What Does Monkey Business Really Mean?

The phrase monkey business denotes actions that are a bit deceptive, silly, or not to be taken seriously. The Cambridge Dictionary defines it as “behavior that is not acceptable or is dishonest.”

In addition, The Britannica Dictionary breaks the idiom’s meaning into two parts, showing that it can be both lighthearted and serious as either “playful tricks or jokes” or “illegal or improper activity or behavior.”

Whenever I hear the phrase, I just think of my kids. They’re always up to monkey business no matter where we are!

What Are the Literal and Figurative Meanings of the Idiom?

Taken literally, monkey business makes us think of actual monkeys engaging in their natural, playful, and mischievous behavior.

But when used figuratively, it refers to deceptive, silly, or foolish actions by people, usually with a negative connotation.

Are There Variations of This Idiom?

Not really. Monkey business is the most commonly used form of the idiom. But we do have some slight variations to use that work with different tenses.

Saying someone is monkeying around is another way of saying they’re actively doing monkey business.

How Is the Idiom Used, and What Are Some Examples?

In contemporary language, monkey business is such a popular idiom we use to express suspicion towards deceitful or foolish actions. But here are a few different ways you can work it into conversations.

What Are Different Ways of Using the Idiom in Context?

  • Within the workplace: We need to ensure everyone’s on the straight and narrow for the next quarter, with no monkey business going on.
  • In relationships: I trust her with my heart and my life; there’s no monkey business happening there.
  • Among friends: We were supposed to study for the math exam, but we ended up doing monkey business and binging Netflix instead.

Are There Notable Examples of the Idiom in Movies, Books, or Media?

Monkey business is a phrase that has been used so much over the years. You can find it in every corner of film and literature.

It pops up in dialogue in movies and in titles, as seen with the 1952 film “Monkey Business,” starring Cary Grant and Marilyn Monroe. It’s also the name of a popular Black Eyed Peas album. 

It also appeared in some publications:

The monkey business allegedly occurred Saturday after the 20-year-old computer science student awoke at 11 a.m. to discover that his smartphone was gone, reports the BBC. (The New York Post)

The popular vote should be given a chance to be counted, and there should be no monkey business in the Electoral College with electors ignoring the will of the people. (Terre Haute Tribune Star)

How Is the Idiom Commonly Misinterpreted or Misused?

The idiom monkey business can be misinterpreted or misused in various ways:

  • Literal interpretation: People unfamiliar with this idiom may interpret it literally as some kind of business or activity related to monkeys, which is not the intended meaning.
  • Severity of actions: The idiom generally refers to playful mischief or minor dishonesty. Misuse can occur when it’s used to describe serious, harmful actions or criminal activities, as it downplays the gravity of the situation.
  • Contextual misuse: Monkey business is often used in an informal or colloquial context. It could sound out of place or even disrespectful if used in a formal or serious context.

What Is the Origin of the Idiom Monkey Business?

Monkey Business Ngram
Monkey business usage trend.

The idiom monkey business has multiple potential origins. One primary theory indicates its roots are found in the term Monkeyshine, first coined in 1832 with the meaning dishonorable act. This term was used notably in the Jim Crow song that mocked African–American slaves. In addition, English parents in earlier times often referred to their children’s misbehavior as monkey tricks.

A more nuanced perspective proposes that monkey business is a by-product of the English colonial era in India, with Bandrami, a Bengali term for naughty or reckless behavior, morphing into monkey business in the 1830s as it was incorporated into English. 

How Has the Idiom Evolved?

It hasn’t evolved much since its first use during the 1800s and its spike in popularity during the mid-1900s. It’s a solid way to describe silly actions and behavior. We’ve recently adopted it with a negative angle, like in the business world, to emphasize that there’s no place for silly antics.

What Are the Related Terms to this Idiom?

Learning about related terms for monkey business only adds to your growing vocabulary and gives a clearer expression of thought.

Monkey Business Idiom The Art Of Trickery and Lies

What Are Some Synonyms?

  • Shenanigans
  • Mischief
  • Skulduggery
  • Fooling around
  • Tomfoolery
  • Misbehavior 
  • Buffoonery
  • Trickery
  • Horseplay
  • Misconduct 

What Are Related Terms and Phrases?

  • Playing tricks
  • Unethical conduct
  • Funny business
  • Dishonesty
  • Playful antics
  • Tricky situations
  • Behavior management
  • Social norms
  • Disapproval
  • Mischief-makers

 What Are Some Antonyms?

  • Seriousness
  • Honesty
  • Sobriety
  • Straight and narrow
  • Good behavior 
Monkey Business: Test Your Knowledge!

Monkey Business: Test Your Knowledge!

Choose the correct answer.

Why is “monkey business” considered an idiom?
What does the idiom “monkey business” mean?
Which situation is most likely to be described as monkey business?
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Stop Monkeying Around! 

In this article, we’ve dived deep into the intriguing world of the idiom monkey business, exploring its origins, evolution, and impact on English language communication. We have uncovered its diverse roots and walked through its transition from a term with serious implications to a playful, widely recognized phrase.
As we have seen, idioms like monkey business add vibrancy to language, inching us closer to understanding the rich tapestry of culture and historical context. With this newfound knowledge, you are now better equipped to appreciate and utilize this idiom in your everyday communication. Keep exploring and enriching your language skills!