A Wordorigins post quoted the online OED’s etymology of monkey-business:

[< MONKEY n. + BUSINESS n., probably after Bengali bā̃drāmi. Compare modern Sanskrit vānara-karman (< vānara monkey + karman action, work, employment), Hindi vānara-karma.]

This is interesting enough on its own, but what leads me to post about it is this extremely informative comment from Aniruddha Sen:

Being a native Asian, south Asian and a Bengali-speaking native from India at that, I can vouch that bandrami connotes different shades of mischievousness that are not conveyed by monkey business. (a) Children are often accused of bandrami when they climb trees or tall structures dangerously, or tease a mate with unseemly gestures, or do several naughty things that no self-respecting monkey ever does; (b) adults commit bandrami when they do mischievous things not befitting their age; (c) when a male of the species homo sapiens sapiens tries to draw the attention of a female with unbecoming gestures. There are other shades of that ilk. (a) and (b) have mischievousness in common; and (a) and (c) share monkey-like gestures and postures as seen by a detached observer. That much fall legitimately within the monkey business ambit. The other shades of the Bengali meaning can only be understood when one considers that bandar itself is a swear word: it means (1) ugly, (2) irreverent, (3) mischievous, (4) clannish and (5) someone with aggressive posture.

The Bengali tongue is full of contradictions ill-understood by others. Elderly Bengalis often use the word bandar lovingly to refer to youngsters whom they like.

Mr. Sen then made a separate post to discuss his theory that “the commonest pan-Indian swear-word” s(h)ala, literally ‘brother-in-law’ (from Sanskrit shyalaka), which “became a swear-word perhaps because of the I-sleep-with-your-sister connotation,” is actually a borrowing from Insha’llah, since according to his research “the swear-word starts appearing about a century after Islamic occupation”; sounds dubious to me, but I thought I’d put it out there for comment.


  1. I would say that all of (a), (b), and (c), though surely not the business of cercopithecids, are most definitely monkey business according to the genius of the English language when committed by hominids. There are, however, several other species of monkey business, notably (d) the criminal and (e) the sexual.
    Monkey as both insult and endearment are also known to English. My grandson’s father (my sin-in-law, as it were) calls him Monkey on occasion. Indeed, the OED gives no less than 27 definitions of this word: in brief, ‘the primate’, ‘koala’ (obsolete), ‘a sheep’ (rare), ‘young hare’, ‘child(ish) person’, ‘rascal’, ‘person who does menial work requiring agility’, ‘anyone at all’, ‘non-white person’ (offensive), ‘chorus girl’ (rare), ‘subordinate’, ‘paparazzo’, ‘cannon’, ‘hammer (of a pile driver)’, ‘porous vessel used to cool drinks’, ‘alcohol flask’ (obsolete), ‘type of shaft’ (in mining), ‘ratchet’ (in mining), ‘bricklayer’s hod’ (rare), ‘tray’ (in making matches), ‘zinc chloride’ (obsolete), ‘strap fixed to a saddle’, ‘£500 or AU$500’, ‘mortgage’, ‘vulva’, ‘penis’, ‘drug addiction’, ‘a dance’.

  2. I know “grease monkeys” and “cheeky monkeys” and “monkey boots” and “monkey puzzles” and “monkey puzzle trees”.

  3. Children are often accused of bandrami when they climb trees or tall structures dangerously, or tease a mate with unseemly gestures, or do several naughty things that no self-respecting monkey ever does;
    I like the idea of a self-respecting monkey. But how does one know whether a given monkey has consulted his sense of decency before engaging in a particular behavior ? How does one know whether a given human being has consulted his ? For that matter, how do we know whether either has a sense of decency at all ?
    I think “decency” is an abstraction used to characterize behavior which the individuals of a group impose on themselves, by means of acceptance and rejection. It is part of what makes them a group in the eyes of an observer. To discover wherein consists the behavior of a self-respecting monkey, one has to observe how the other members of his group react to his behavior.
    Monkey-shines, for instance, are what young primates of all kinds have been observed to indulge in. The intragroup reaction in each case is to show a certain tolerance that diminishes with increasing age of the young animal. The examples that Sen gives of what the word bandar can be used to mean show by implication that Bengalis have observed the behavior of primates closely.
    I don’t really see what he means by saying “The Bengali tongue is full of contradictions ill-understood by others”. Where are any contradictions in his examples ? Perhaps he means that the application across species of criteria applicable only to one is a category mistake – but that’s not a contradiction. Perhaps he merely means that Bengali is a language quite unlike any other. But we’ve all heard that one before – most native speakers who think about the matter go through a phase of believing that their native language is the bestest. That’s just a case of adult monkey business.

  4. Joyce knew how to Bandrami. Robert Anton Wilson turned me on to the “fun” of trying to translate Joyce’s “Finnegan’s Wake”. The underlying Taoist concepts within are an extra bonus. “Laotsey taotsey”…:-)

  5. Reference the common footnote in the comic strip The Phantom: “In the Bandar tongue”.
    The Phantom has waged a centuries-long war with the Singh pirates, who seem not to be Sikhs.
    Of course, Mowgli as well.

  6. “The Bengali tongue is full of contradictions ill-understood by others. Elderly Bengalis often use the word bandar lovingly to refer to youngsters whom they like.”
    This is (coincidentally, I presume) similar to the Yiddish word “bandit,” meaning “rogue, rascal, pain-in-the tuchis,” which elderly Jews use in mock disapproval of their grandchildren’s clever monkey-businesses.

  7. I agree with some of the commenters that it seems odd that this expression would be a calque from Bengali, presumably via British English, that somehow became wide-spread in the US in the late 19th century. Especially since similar expressions like “monkey wrench” and “monkey suit” seem to have appeared in the US around the 1880s, the same time the first recorded American usage of “monkey business” appears. It’s certainly a possible etymology but coincidence seems plausible as well.
    I also note that the way Chuck Berry uses the phrase implies no mischief at all – just dishonest low-down behavior.

  8. Sala does not mean brother-in-law; it is wife’s brother. The use can be extended not just in terms of abuse, but also in terms of who-is-a-brother to your wife; which might be her direct cousins, or other people who have a brotherly relation with her. Using it as an abusive word probably shows how you can extend the meaning of “wife”, too.
    According to this (Samsad Bengali-English: sali – “wife’s” “sister” – can also be pejorative. Relevant entries are 1st and 4th from bottom of the page.

  9. Sorry, I should mention that I only half -or less- speak Bengali, and that my comments are based on what people do with other, more common, kinship terms. I’m not speaking from direct experience with the word.

  10. I know almost nothing about Indian languages but I would be highly doubtful without solid evidence that the Arabic expression insha’allah (‘God willing’) morphed into an swear word. It is used frequently by Arabic speakers, but I have never, ever heard it used with such a connotation. The fact that it occurred sometime after a Muslim conquest and has some sound correspondences is not, IMO, enough to support such a proposal.

  11. The fact that it occurred sometime after a Muslim conquest and has some sound correspondences is not, IMO, enough to support such a proposal.
    That is my opinion as well.

  12. Yes, absolutely it is opinion (and explicitly stated as such with “IMO” included).

  13. GeorgeW: I was agreeing with you, in case that wasn’t clear.

  14. Sorry. I read your comment to quickly. I’ll do better next time.

  15. GeorgeW: According to this source the American Heritage Dictionary says the term brother-in-law has 3 meanings:
    1. The brother of one’s spouse.
    2. The husband of one’s sister.
    3. The husband of the sister of one’s spouse
    There was a discussion on LH about this here.

  16. GeorgeW: Sorry, I read your comment too quickly. I now see that you were not commenting on the definition of brother-in-law but you were merely pointing out that sala is a much wider term than brother-in-law.

  17. 1. Grumbly Stu (Dec 22, 2010) had asked how to know when a monkey was self-respecting. This is what I have to offer. In the small town, 60 km off Calcutta, that was my home for many years, black-faced langurs (hanuman in Hindusthani) were a menace till the 1990s. Each tribe was eight to twenty strong, led by a muscular male surrounded by the ubiquitous harem. The lesser males waited their turn to head a tribe. I can’t remember ever seeing two tribes fight each other. When they had a difficult task at hand (for example, looting a well-protected mango orchard with nets thrown around each tree) one tribe would call another, and another—if needed. I am witness to a historical cooperative campaign against my then neighbour (no love lost) in which the human guards were hoodwinked by diversionary tactics. Yet they shared the loot equitably, if not equally; I saw the process of distribution presided by the three tribal leaders—jointly. (It reminded me of the post-WW II leaders’ summit). Another male langur, perhaps just past adolescence, used to tease my dog. He would sit on my garage roof, much to the displeasure of Buchku (pedigree: Bengal Road-terrier), and swing his long tail to and fro close to the canine snout below—pulling it out of reach every time Buchku jumped to snap—till the dog was dog tired. So there are the self-respecting and not so self-respecting dogs; no room for mistake.
    2. Peter F (Dec 22, 2010) said that sala didn’t mean brother-in-law but one’s wife’s sister. Iching (same date) cited three meanings of b-i-l from the American Heritage Dictionary. How true both are! Most Indian languages, thanks to the joint family system that persisted in Bengal till my college days and perhaps longer, have specific names for each type of relationship. Uncle for us might mean any of the following people: kaka (father’s younger brother or cousin), jyetha (father’s elder brother or cousin/mother’s ditto), kaka or jyetha (any unrelated male neighbour of a certain age in father’s village), chhoto mama (mother’s younger brother or cousin), bado mama (mother’s elder brother or cousin), chhoto or bado mama (any unrelated male neighbour of a certain age in mother’s village) and so on and forth. S(h)ala does mean one’s wife’s brother; isn’t he a b-i-l in English?
    3. Several commentators at once think that s(h)ala can’t be a degeneration of insh’Allah with a change of meaning. At the end of the day, I’m convinced that the swearword s(h)ala is mis-derived from insh’allah—no disrespect intended. If I survive the intense research that I have launched, I’ll let you know.

Speak Your Mind