See more synonyms for monkey on
noun, plural mon·keys.
  1. any mammal of the order Primates, including the guenons, macaques, langurs, and capuchins, but excluding humans, the anthropoid apes, and, usually, the tarsier and prosimians.Compare New World monkey, Old World monkey.
  2. the fur of certain species of such long-haired animals.
  3. a person likened to such an animal, as a mischievous, agile child or a mimic.
  4. a dance, deriving from the twist, in which the partners move their hands as if climbing a pole and jerk their heads back and forth.
  5. Slang. an addiction to narcotics.
  6. any of various mechanical devices, as the ram of a pile driver.
  7. Coal Mining. a small passageway or opening.
  8. British Slang. the sum of 500 pounds.
  9. Australian Informal. a sheep.
verb (used without object), mon·keyed, mon·key·ing.
  1. Informal. to play or trifle idly; fool (often followed by around or with).
verb (used with object), mon·keyed, mon·key·ing.
  1. to imitate; ape; mimic.
  2. to mock.
  1. a monkey on one's back, Slang.
    1. an addiction to a drug or drugs; narcotic dependency.
    2. an enduring and often vexing habit or urge.
    3. a burdensome problem, situation, or responsibility; personal affliction or hindrance.
  2. make a monkey out of, to cause to appear ridiculous; make a fool of.Also make a monkey of.

Origin of monkey

1520–30; apparently < Low German; compare Middle Low German Moneke (name of son of Martin the Ape in the story of Reynard), equivalent to mone- (akin to obsolete French monne she-ape, Spanish, Portuguese mono ape) + -ke diminutive suffix
Related formsmon·key·ish, adjectivemon·key·ish·ly, adverbmon·key·ish·ness, noun Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2019

British Dictionary definitions for monkey on one's back


  1. any of numerous long-tailed primates excluding the prosimians (lemurs, tarsiers, etc): comprise the families Cercopithecidae (Old World monkeys), Cebidae (New World monkeys), and Callithricidae (marmosets)See Old World monkey, New World monkey Related adjective: simian
  2. any primate except man
  3. a naughty or mischievous person, esp a child
  4. the head of a pile-driver (monkey engine) or of some similar mechanical device
  5. (modifier) nautical denoting a small light structure or piece of equipment contrived to suit an immediate purposea monkey foresail; a monkey bridge
  6. US and Canadian slang an addict's dependence on a drug
  7. slang a butt of derision; someone made to look a fool (esp in the phrase make a monkey of)
  8. slang (esp in bookmaking) £500
  9. US and Canadian slang $500
  10. Australian slang, archaic a sheep
  11. give a monkey's British slang to care about or regard as importantwho gives a monkey's what he thinks?
  12. have a monkey on one's back slang
    1. to be troubled by a persistent problem
    2. US and Canadianto be addicted to a drug
  1. (intr; usually foll by around, with, etc) to meddle, fool, or tinker
  2. (tr) rare to imitate; ape

Word Origin for monkey

C16: perhaps from Low German; compare Middle Low German Moneke name of the ape's son in the tale of Reynard the Fox
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012

Word Origin and History for monkey on one's back



1520s, likely from an unrecorded Middle Low German *moneke or Middle Dutch *monnekijn, a colloquial word for "monkey," originally a diminutive of some Romanic word, cf. French monne (16c.); Middle Italian monnicchio, from Old Italian monna; Spanish mona "ape, monkey." In a 1498 Low German version of the popular medieval beast story "Roman de Renart" ("Reynard the Fox"), Moneke is the name given to the son of Martin the Ape; transmission of the word to English might have been via itinerant entertainers from the German states.

The Old French form of the name is Monequin (recorded as Monnekin in a 14c. version from Hainault), which could be a diminutive of some personal name, or it could be from the general Romanic word, which may be ultimately from Arabic maimun "monkey," literally "auspicious," a euphemistic usage because the sight of apes was held by the Arabs to be unlucky [Klein]. The word would have been influenced in Italian by folk etymology from monna "woman," a contraction of ma donna "my lady."

Monkey has been used affectionately for "child" since c.1600. As a type of modern popular dance, it is attested from 1964. Monkey business attested from 1883. Monkey suit "fancy uniform" is from 1886. Monkey wrench is attested from 1858; its figurative sense of "something that obstructs operations" is from the notion of one getting jammed in the gears of machinery (cf. spanner in the works). To make a monkey of someone is attested from 1900. To have a monkey on one's back "be addicted" is 1930s narcotics slang, though the same phrase in the 1860s meant "to be angry." There is a story in the Sinbad cycle about a tormenting ape-like creature that mounts a man's shoulders and won't get off, which may be the root of the term. In 1890s British slang, to have a monkey up the chimney meant "to have a mortgage on one's house." The three wise monkeys ("see no evil," etc.) are attested from 1926.



1859, "to mock, mimic," from monkey (n.). Meaning "play foolish tricks" is from 1881. Related: Monkeyed; monkeying.

Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper

Idioms and Phrases with monkey on one's back

monkey on one's back


Drug addiction, as in He'd had a monkey on his back for at least two years. [Slang; first half of 1900s]


A vexing problem or burden, as in This project has proved to be a monkey on my back—there seems to be no end to it. Both usages allude to being unable to shake off the animal from one's back.


In addition to the idioms beginning with monkey

  • monkey business
  • monkey on one's back

also see:

  • fool (monkey) around
  • make a fool (monkey) of
  • more fun than a barrel of monkeys
  • throw a monkey wrench
The American Heritage® Idioms Dictionary Copyright © 2002, 2001, 1995 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.