The Grammarphobia Blog

Monkeyshine!

Q: I’ve been curious about the word “monkeyshines” since I was a child and visited my grandmother, who was born in the early 20th century in a small town in Kansas. As we drove away, she’d make odd gestures and call out “monkeyshines.” I know that the word means acting up, but I wonder where it comes from. Does it have its origins in vaudeville or minstrel shows?

A: The word “monkeyshine” (often “monkeyshines”), referring to a mischievous or playful trick, has a very interesting and disturbing history.

It first appeared in 1828 (as “munky shines”) in a song by Thomas “Daddy” Rice, a popular white comedian who performed in blackface. In the song, called “Jump Jim Crow,” Rice sings and dances as an old plantation slave: “I cut so many munky shines, I dance de gallopade.” (The gallop, or gallopade, was a 19th-century dance.)

The song also gave us the term “Jim Crow” for segregation and other discrimination against African-Americans. But the use of the word “shine” as an abusive term for a black person may have nothing to do with Rice’s song. The usage didn’t appear in print until the early 20th century, well after the song’s heyday, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Your guess that “monkeyshine” comes from minstrel shows was right on target. In fact, some people consider “Daddy” Rice to be the father of minstrelsy.

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