Thursday, March 24, 2016

Indians, Pawnbrokers and Flappers - the Evolutionary History and Etymology of, "I'll be a Monkey's Uncle"!

“Well, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle!”  

But what is a “monkey's uncle?” Is it: 

1. an echo of a politically incorrect British play from the 1840s?  

2. a reference to a late-1880s play about a brass monkey in a pawn shop? 

3. an example of incongruous flappers’ slang, along the lines of “It’s the bee’s knees!” or “the cat’s pajamas!”   

4. a comical, inverted allusion to Darwinism?

Of the three, number 1 seems the least likely; number 2 is possible; and number 3 is certainly true, even if influenced by numbers 3 and/or 4. 

Finally, the timing of the emergence of the idiom, in the 1910s, and its increasing popularity in through the early 1920s, parallels the rise of anti-evolution activism, whose most noteworthy proponent, perennial Presidential candidate, William Jennings Bryant, would eventually face-off with Clarence Darrow in the famous “Scopes Monkey Trial,” in 1925.  It seems likely that people hearing and using the idiom during the late-1910s would have at least appreciated the humorous turning-on-its-head of the notion that man descended from monkeys and apes; if not directly, at least from a common ancestor. 

You be the judge. 

El Paso Herald (Texas), July 31, 1917, page 1.

A comedy, “A Brass Monkey,” proved to be a piece of work turned out by the famous Hoyt company, and went through two reels of madcap adventures and ludicrous actions, which brought out the unreserved good humor of the audience.

The Ogden Standard, July 20, 1917, page 2.

This advertisement for Hoyt’s silent film version of A Brass Monkey may be the earliest-known example of the idiom, “to be a monkey’s uncle.” 

An item in the entertainment newspaper, The New York Clipper (a forerunner of Variety), suggests that the idiom may be at least several years older:

Dallas, Tex. - . . . .

Old Mill (Dalton Bros., mgrs.) – For week of 3, the vaudeville bill included: Williams Duo, Musical Comedy Co., in “A Monkey’s Uncle.”

The New York Clipper, November 15, 1913, page 23.

The name, “Monkey’s Uncle,” also had a brief period of notoriety in the 1840s, as the nickname of an ugly, ape-looking character in the comic play Wigwam; and again, about ten years later, in a poem referring to characters and events from that play.  The sixty-year gap between publication of the poem in 1856, and the first appearance of the idiom in 1917, casts doubt on whether there is any connection between the two; Professor Peate’s trained, aquatic monkey named, “Uncle” (who drew rave reviews for his performance at the Eden Musee-Theatre in Altoona, Pennsylvania in 1893), notwithstanding.[i]

Altoona Tribune, September 19, 1893, page 4.
The idiom next appears in print a few times in 1920 and 1921; and regularly in 1922 and beyond.

WigWam (1847) 

The Wigwam, A Burletta, in One Act, by Mr. Shirley Brooks, was first performed at the Theatre Royal, Lyceum, on Monday, January 25th, 1847.  The scene is an Indian encampment some miles from Montreal.  The tribesmen of the “Kutanackem” tribe include four brothers, Bingo, Lingo, Mingo and Jingo, their adopted sister, Cora, and their father, Chief Fondlesquaw (who, in reality, is an old Cockney, named Erasmus Labscouse, who left his wife behind in Bloomsbury, England many years earlier). 

The script displays the casual, almost obscenely racist attitudes of the day; the opening lines include the following exchange:

Jingo (aka “the Thundering Bull”): What would the Downey Beaver say to his brothers?

Bingo (aka “the Downey Beaver”): “Who is more fit to be listened to? Who among the tribe can drink more of the fire-water, or tell the white faces more lies than I?”

Lingo (aka “the Great Blue Ape”): “It is well. The Downey Beaver is the greatest drunkard and liar among us. Honour to him!

The brothers are discussing which one of them is a suitable mate for their adopted sister, Cora, the only woman left in the tribe.  Mingo (aka “the Monkey’s Uncle”) claims the honor.  Mingo’s nickname is explained in the costume instructions, which specify that the paint around Mingo’s eyes should make him “resemble an ape.”  Curiously, the costume instructions for Lingo (the Great Blue Ape) provide no similar guidance.

The story takes off when a Cockney named Pluffy Plumpton shows up in their camp.  Plumpton is in Canada with his fiancĂ© and future mother-in-law, looking for his fiance’s father – none other than Erasmus Labscouse (Chief Fondlesquaw).  Initially, the tribe kidnaps Pluffy, adopts him as one of their own, and tries to forcibly marry him off to Fondlesquaw’s adopted daughter, Cora.  In the end, however, Mrs. Labscouse and her daughter arrive, rescue Pluffy, and drag Mr. Labscouse back to England.  

Although Wigwam reads like a bad episode of Gilligan’s Island, the Times of London gave it a good review:

Altogether the Wigwam is a very amusing piece of extravagance, very smartly written, not the less pleasant because it is intentionally absurd, and gaining from the peculiar nature of the scenery and grouping a picturesque appearance which does not generally belong to farce.

The Times, January 27, 1847, page 5.

Mock-Song of Hiawatha (1856)

Thankfully, the play is long-forgotten.  But it had not yet been forgotten in the 1856, when the British magazine, Punch, published a satire of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s, Song of Hiawatha, which had been published the previous year.  Punch’s poem, labeled Song of Hiawatha (Author’s Protective Edition), includes several obvious references to characters in Wigwam, and the actors who played them (Note: Mr. F. Mathews played “Fondlesquaw,” and Miss Mary Keeley played Cora in the original London production):

Out came sundry comic Indians
Of the tribe of Kut-an-hack-um.
With their Chief, the clean Efmatthews,
With the growling Downy Beaver,
With the valiant Monkey’s Uncle,
Came the gracious Mari-Kee-lee,

Puck, Volume 30, January 12, 1856, page 17.

Puck, January 12, 1856.

The poem was reprinted in a number of American papers,[ii] so American readers could have been exposed to the name.  There is no evidence, however, that the English play or satirical poem would have, or could have, inspired the creation of the idiom.  Moreover, there is no further evidence of the “Monkey’s Uncle” until 1913; and no unambiguous example of the idiom until 1917.

Both Wigwam and the mock-Song of Hiawatha were published before Darwin's, On the Origin of the Species (1859), so it is impossible for the concept of evolution to have played a role in the naming of Mingo.  In any case, the names, "Monkey's Uncle" and "Great Blue Ape," as used inWigwam, seem to have been used merely as a device to make the Indians seem laughably animalistic or ugly.  The long gap between the publication of the mock-Song of Hiawatha and the emergence of the idiom also suggests that there was likely no causal relationship between the two - although you never know.

A Monkey’s Uncle (1913)

In August of 1913, the Dalton Brothers of Dallas, Texas were in the process of building the “Old Mill Theater,” on Elm Street, Dallas’ “Theater Row.”  To fill their 1,600 seats with fans of “first class musical comedy stock,” they hired the “Williams Duo,” who are said to have “written and produced some sixty legitimate musical comedies for the Budd and Henry Musical Comedy Co. and the Happy Hour Musical Comedy Co., of Dallas, Tex.”[iii]  One of the first pieces produced at the “Old Mill,” in November, 1913, was the Williams Duo’s, “A Monkey’s Uncle.”

There is no record or description of the story, plot or theme of “A Monkey’s Uncle.”  It seems most likely that it is a reference to the idiom, “to be a monkey’s uncle;” suggesting that the idiom was already in circulation by 1913. 

It could, however, be a precursor to the idiom; as the idiom does not appear in print until 1917, and does not appear regularly in print until the 1920s.  The plot of the film promoted with the tag-line, "Well, I'm a Monkey's Uncle," in 1917, may hold a clue to what a “monkey’s uncle” is or was.

A Brass Monkey (1917)

The idiom, “I'm a Monkey's Uncle,” would have lent itself naturally to advertising the film, A Brass Monkey, based on the word, “monkey,” alone.  The fact that the action takes place in an “auction house,” a type of pawn shop, makes the idiom doubly appropriate.  “Uncle” was a slang term for a pawnbroker.

Although I have not been able to find any contemporary description of the plot of the 1917 Hoyt film, it appears to be a film adaptation of Charles Hoyt’s comic stage play, A Brass Monkey (1888), a satire of superstitions.  The main character, Jonah, inherits an “auction house” from his uncle.  One of the items in the auction house is a brass monkey paperweight that his uncle’s friends believed to be cursed, and to have caused his string of bad luck and four failed marriages.  The uncle, however, never believed in superstitions.  As a poke in the eye of the notion that the monkey was cursed, he left his “auction house” to his nephew; but only on condition that he never sell the monkey.

During the late-1800s and early-1900s, an “auction house” was a type of pawn shop; the unclaimed goods being sold at auction, as opposed to simply being sold in a shop, as in what we might think of as a “pawn shop” today.[iv]  A pawn shop owner was an “Uncle”:


The familiar slang term “uncle,” applied to a pawnbroker is nothing but a poor pun on the latin word “uncus,” a hook.  Pawnbrokers used the hook to lift pawned articles to upper shelves before spouts were adopted.  Gone to the “uncus,” is exactly the equivalent of the modern phrase, “up the spout.”

The Evening Times (Grand Forks, North Dakota), October 1, 1912, page 4.[v] 

East Oregonian (Pendleton), February 21, 1905, page 7.
A panel from the "Pinky" comic strip illustrates the use of "Uncle":
Richmond Times Dispatch, December 19, 1915.

In the original stage play, A Brass Monkey, when Jonah inherits the auction house (pawn shop) with a brass monkey, he became, in a sense, a “monkey’s Uncle.”  Might the same association have inspired the title of the “Williams Duo’s” 1913 musical skit, A Monkey’s Uncle? 

During the vaudeville era, it was not unheard of for low-budget, regional acting troupes to borrow or repurpose plots, themes or ideas from successful shows.  A Brass Monkey was very successful during its first run, and for several years afterwards.  The play introduced the “Razzle-Dazzle Song,” which was wildly popular in its day; and helped popularize the expression, “razzle-dazzle.”  In other words, A Brass Monkey had been successful enough that the “Williams Duo” might repackage elements of its plot twenty years later; elements that might lend themselves to the title, A Monkey’s Uncle.  It may be a stretch, but is at least an interesting speculation.

Neither the film nor the vaudeville skit appear to have been particularly successful or well known.  I only found one reference to the skit, and only a few references to the film; and only one of those included the tag-line, “I’m a Monkey’s Uncle.”  It therefore seems unlikely that either one or both of them would have had much of a hand in popularizing the expression.  But it is possible that either one or both of them could have been the origin of the expression; although it is also possible that they both merely reflected the existence of an idiom already in circulation. 

I’ll Be a Monkey’s Uncle

After the tag-line in the 1917 advertisement for A Brass Monkey, the earliest examples of the idiom in print show up in 1920.  “A Monkey’s Uncle” was the name of a character in a sideshow; an apparent reference to the idiom: 

The Davidsonian (Davidson, North Carolina), November 26, 1920, page 5.

A full-fledged example of the idiom appeared in the same newspaper a few months later:

The Davidsonian (Davidson North Carolina), February 25 1921 page 1.

Over the next couple of years, the idiom showed up more often, in more places:

I didn't think the ref. who was one of the boys and the most notorious homer in Northern New York, would have guts enough to disqualify but I'm a monkey's uncle if he don't grab Limbo and award the fight to my droopin lily on a foul.
Variety, April 14, 1922, page 8.

If these courses in New Orleans are golf courses then I am a monkey’s uncle.”

The Evening News (San Antonio, Texas), September 14, 1922, page 8.

One source identifies the expression as, “flappers’ slang”:

“Flapparese” is Still Popular
Although the Flapper Has Gone

. . . For instance, when a sweet young thing, tripping over her draped skirt, is surprised at something or anything or nothing, as the case may be, she doesn’t exclaim “I’m a son-of-a-gun” as she used to a decade ago (of course, it’s the slangy type of girl about whom we’re talking) but she does indulge in just as adequate an expression, to wit, “Why, I’m a monkey’s uncle!

Durham Morning Herald, North Carolina, December 12, 1922, page 3.

The seeming incongruity of being the uncle of a monkey is similar to the silly incongruities at the heart of much of the “flapper slang” of the day:

Phrases like, “Well, if that isn’t the bee’s knees” or the “cat’s ankle” or the “kitten’s whiskers” or the “oyster’s elbow” or the “snake’s hips” or the “elephant’s adenoids” – well, they just can’t be explained, and they can mean any number of things.

Durham Morning Herald, North Carolina, December 12, 1922, page 3.

Even if young women of the day used the expression particularly often, young men who had to deal with the flapper-set were also known to use the expression:

When is a joke not a joke?  Two answers are forthcoming.  One from coquettish Edith Russell Cheseborough, Boston society girl.  “Frame it,” she told her Harvard admirer, William L. Lawrence referring to the marriage license he had obtained.  “The nuptial idea is a joke,” she told Lawrence.  But Lawrence cannot see it.  “If that’s a joke, I’m a monkey’s uncle,” he said.

Elmira Star Gazette (New York), February 8, 1923.

By the mid-1920s, the expression had assumed a permanent place in the lexicon; just in time for the "Scopes monkey trial."

Topsy-Turvy Darwinism?

 “I’m a monkey’s uncle” may also be, as other observers have suggested, a reference to Darwinism.  Darwin was a frequent target of ridicule throughout the late-1800s, as numerous magazines published portraits of Darwin with monkey features, and monkeys with Darwin's features.  In the 1910s, when the idiom emerged, evolution humor was still alive and well:

The national pastime is a pretty sure indication of how many years a country is separated from Darwin’s monkeys.  In [(pre-Revolutionary)] Russia, . . . the national pastime is bomb throwin’.

The Washington Times (Washington DC), October 3, 1911, page 8.

Some jokesters even suggested that monkeys, not humans, should be offended by a purported relationship:

After listening to a description of two prize fighters you know that the monkeys have a splendid libel suit against Kid Darwin.

The Washington Times (Washington DC), March 30, 1916, page 10.

The opening-credits disclaimer in the "Three Stooges'" short, I'm a Monkey's Uncle (1948),  is from, the same comic lineage:

It seems likely that the idiom, “I’m a monkey’s uncle,” would have easily been understood as an allusion to the controversy; whether critical of evolution or not.  The period during which the idiom emerged also coincided with perennial Presidential candidate, William Jennings Bryan’s, high-profile anti-Darwinism campaign:

Prof. Kirk attacked the statement recently made by William Jennings Bryan, who was quoted as follows: “I cannot accept it (referring to the theory of evolution as laid down by Darwin).  The monkey may be acceptable as an ancestor for some – I do not find him so.”

Prof. Kirk hazarded the guess that perhaps Mr. Bryan would have preferred to have been created directly out of mud than to have had an intelligent animal for an ancestor.

The Evening Star (Washington DC), October 2, 1911, page 22.

In October 1921, Bryan would deliver a major anti-evolution speech at the Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Virginia, and published two popular anti-evolution books, In His Image and The Menace of the Theory of Evolution.  His commitment to the anti-evolutionary cause culminated in his face-off with Clarence Darrow in the “Scopes monkey trial” of 1925.

The Sunday Telegram (Clarksville, West Virginia), May 7, 1916, Section 2, Page 10.
But Bryan had it all wrong.  As other observers noted at the time, Darwin never said that humans descended directly from monkeys and apes; he said that humans, monkeys and apes descended from a common ancestor.  Monkeys are, at best, our cousins:

We all came originally from the lizard, even unto the cows and chickens.  And the monkeys are only our cousins.  But until it is established in what order the offspring of prehistoric days broke away from the main family, we will be in the dark as to whether the monkey is our first or 47th cousin, says Dr. Bradford.

South Bend News-Times (Indiana), March 4, 1918, page 4.

. . . or, perhaps our “Uncle”:

Monkey Our Uncle.   

Darwin never said we descended from monkeys – we people in this land of the partially free and the brave, more or less!  He said we and the monkeys had a common origin, so the monkey is only our uncle at best.   

Blue Grass Blade, July 26, 1908, page 4.

The Sunday Telegram (Clarksville, West Virginia), May 7, 1916, Section 2, Page 10.

Man has made a wonderful ascent since he used to call a monkey “uncle,” but he has not yet ascended to the highest mountain peak [Mt. Everest].

The Tribune (Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada), December 18, 1920, page 4.

A Monkey’s Uncle (1965)

But while mankind continued its ascent, the idiom went into free-fall.  During the half-century after the idiom, “I’ll be a Monkey’s Uncle,” first crawled out from the proverbial, idiomatic ooze, Humankind devolved – proving both Darwin and the Fundamentalists wrong.   

What else could explain the strange confluence of events that brought Annette Funicello and the Beach Boys together to provide us a much different take on “A Monkey’s Uncle”:

The Beach Boys and Annette Funicello, The Monkey’s Uncle

“I love the Monkey’s Uncle, and the Monkey’s Uncle’s ape for me”
“I love the Monkey’s Uncle, and I wish I were the Monkey’s Aunt”

[i] Altoona Tribune, September 19, 1893, page 4.
[ii] See, e.g., The New York Tribune, January 25, 1856, page 3; Green-Mountain Freeman (Montpelier, Vermont), February 14, 1856, page 4; Wheeling Daily Intelligencer (West Virginia), March 28, 1856, page 2.
[iii] New York Clipper, August 23, 1913, page 19.
[iv] See, e. g., The Wheeling Daily Intelligencer (West Virginia), December 28, 1892, page 2 (Yesterday afternoon Officer Buch made a tour of the pawnshops and found that the thief had pawned the coat at Liffingwell’s auction house on Market street, getting $2.50 for it).  Portions of the book on which the play was based took place in a pawn shop, making the allusion even more clear.
[v] A similar explanation appears in, Trench Johnson, Phrases and Names, Their Origins and Meanings, Philadelphia, J. B. Lippincott, 1906, page 363.