Posted by: Jack Henry | October 18, 2022

Editor’s Corner: A barrel of monkeys

From: Kara Church <>
Sent: Tuesday, October 18, 2022 6:29 AM
To: Kara Church <>
Subject: Editor’s Corner: A barrel of monkeys

Dear Editrix,

Barrels. It’s a fun word to say. But as far as I know, they don’t have an engine and tend not to move—so why, when someone or something is coming toward us quickly, do we say, “They were barreling toward us?” Also, was it a common practice to keep monkeys in barrels? Why do we compare a lot of fun (or chaos) to a “barrel full of monkeys?” I can envision how wacky that would be, but I wonder why barrels, and not a cage or a box?


A Monkey’s Uncle

Dear Uncle,

Wow! So many questions, so little time! I found quite a few details on these different idioms, so I will define them, give you some additional information on them, and answer your questions.

First, let’s look at “I’ll be a monkey’s uncle.” This phrase is used to express surprise or disbelief in something. (“Bachelor Pete finally got married? Well I’ll be a monkey’s uncle!) The history of the phrase is assumed to be a reference to Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859), in which he wrote about evolution and similarities of humans and primates.

Second, what is the deal with the verb “barreling.” What a good question! How did a barrel (or barreling) come to mean “move rapidly, especially in a vehicle”? This use of the word goes back to the 1930s, but its history is much older. Way back in the 1400s, the verb “barrel” meant—get this—to put something in a barrel. From The Word Detective:

…the use of empty barrels for fun and recreation has a history as old as barrels themselves. As a protective container, barrels have long been the vehicle of choice for daredevils convinced that taking a dangerous plunge over a waterfall is a good idea (it usually isn’t). But even bored farm boys have been known, for several centuries, to liven things up by rolling down hills in a barrel. This foolhardy stunt (rolling barrels are nearly impossible to steer or stop) is almost certainly the source of “barrelling,” meaning “moving very rapidly,” especially since “barrelling” carries overtones of recklessness and “unstoppability.”

Lastly, I will address your “barrel of monkeys.” There are several idiomatic phrases you might hear:

  • More fun than a barrel of monkeys
  • As much fun as a barrel of monkeys
  • As funny as a barrel of monkeys

The definition of the term according to Merriam-Webster is “funny and enjoyable.” However, according to one source I read, there’s more to it, and the meaning has changed over time. Monkey’s Uncle, I think you’ll appreciate this since the author’s answer reminded me so much of your email. From Portable Press:

Answering the question: “Where does the phrase ‘As fun as a barrel full of monkeys’ come from?”

Answering this question only brings up more questions. Why did someone have a barrel, and decide to fill it up with monkeys in the first place? And why is that a fun thing? It seems like it would be a nightmarish disaster of monkeys clawing at each other, and throwing their waste at each other, all the while screeching and howling. This doesn’t sound all that fun, let alone the barometer against which all other fun things are judged.

(And for what it’s worth, we’ve never found the children’s game it inspired, “Barrel of Monkeys,” to be all that much fun.)

But fortunately, there is an explanation. “More fun than a barrel of monkeys” is supposed to be an ironic statement, or at least a sarcastic one. It’s properly used to wryly describe something that isn’t fun (say, the board game “Barrel of Monkeys.”) The previous incarnations of the phrase lend credence to that. It was first recorded in 1840 as “cage of monkeys.” By the 1890s, the term had evolved into “a wagon-load of monkeys,” which would aptly describe something both chaotic and terrible.

And one more note. “A barrel of laughs” is supposed to have evolved from “a barrel of monkeys.”

Have a good day in the jungle!

Kara Church | Technical Editor, Advisory | Technical Publications

Pronouns: she/her | Call via Teams |

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