Monkey on one’s back

To have a monkey on one’s back is an idiom that has been in use for over a hundred years. An idiom is a word, group of words or phrase that has a figurative meaning that is not easily deduced from its literal definition. Common idioms are words and phrases used in the English language in order to convey a concise idea, and are often spoken or are considered informal or conversational. English idioms can illustrate emotion more quickly than a phrase that has a literal meaning, even when the etymology or origin of the idiomatic expression is lost. Many English as a Second Language students do not understand idiomatic expressions such as kick the bucket, a dime a dozen, barking up the wrong tree, back to the drawing board and raining cats and dogs, as they attempt to translate them word for word, which yields only the literal meaning. In addition to learning vocabulary and grammar, one must understand the figurative language of idiomatic phrases in order to know English like a native speaker. We will examine the meaning of the phrase monkey on one’s back, where it may have come from and some examples of its use in sentences.

To have a monkey on one’s back may be considered a metaphor that means to have a terrible burden that one can not get rid of, to grapple with a problem that will not go away. Often, to have a monkey on one’s back means to have an addiction that one can not control, or to be addicted to drugs or suffering withdrawal from a drug addiction. The origin of this idiom may be the stories of Sinbad, the earliest known works are from the seventeenth century. In one story, a creature described somewhat like an ape jumps on Sinbad’s back and will not get off. However, an older story attributed to Aesop involves a dolphin giving a monkey a ride through the water. The idioms monkey on the roof and monkey up the chimney meant one had a mortgage to pay, in the late 1800s. Having a monkey on one’s back in the 1800s meant to be angry. Later, having a monkey on one’s back came to mean having a terrible burden. In the 1930s the idiom was applied to a drug addiction, particularly heroin. Sometimes the phrase is expressed as get the monkey off one’s back, meaning to rid oneself of a burden, problem or addiction.


My osteoarthritis is a monkey on my back that attacks my ankles, collar bone and lower back. (The Toronto Sun)

In other words, that monkey on my back may become unmanageable, but that might just require a change in what I mean by “manageable” – especially if I delude myself that I can go it alone. (The National Catholic Register)

“To be honest, I guess there wasn’t a monkey on my back, because I didn’t know nothing about it,” Lincoln coach Steven Smith said of the Blue Tigers’ breakthrough to win on the road in conference play. (The Jefferson City News Tribune)

“Before the break I finally got the monkey off my back and coming back from Christmas I feel like things are finally rolling,” said Yoder, adding his team needed a better start. (Medicine Hat News)


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