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Monkey Business

Were you one of those children that slept with a quantity of stuffed toys?  I certainly was. There was the requisite teddy bear, a circus clown and Barney Rubble, dressed in that fur dress he and Fred Flintstone always wore.  And there was a monkey holding a plastic banana. The bear and the monkey, being the largest, were always placed on the outside for optimal protection, while the clown and Barney huddled with me in the middle.  A good psychologist probably could discern some interesting things about me from that menagerie.

In fact, monkeys played a major role in my formative years.  There was an annual trip to the Caldwell Zoo, where one of the monkeys was my particular favorite.  He had a habit of spitting at the people and doing something with his hands that I didn’t quite understand, but which left the ladies aghast and the men chuckling.  In the movies, there was The Monkey’s Uncle, starring Annette Funicello and Tommy Kirk—I had crushes on both of them. Television had Magilla Gorilla, and more importantly The Monkees. Poor Tommy Kirk was left in the dust after Davy Jones showed up.  And all the Tarzans had Cheeta. A good psychologist might look into that Tarzan thing, too.

So with this long-standing association with and affection for all things simian as backdrop, Ron DeSantis drops his “monkey this up” comment right after winning the Republican nomination for governor of Florida.  Not a really smart choice of words as he is facing the Democratic nominee, Andrew Gillum, who is seeking to become the first African American governor of the state.

Not to split word hairs here, but I’ve never really heard this expression.  I’ve heard “monkey around,” but not “monkey it up.” Couple that with his having described Gillum as “articulate” just before the monkey bit, and you have dog whistling so loud that Fox News issued a statement that it did not condone this language.  Whether or not there will be a class action suit for all the ruptured eardrums has not been determined.

Over the years, there have been some terms and expressions laid to rest.  People of good will would not dream of describing negotiation for the best price as having anything to with the Jewish people.  Nor would they associate Native Americans with those who take back gifts or expect something in return. Likewise a makeshift solution might be “jerry-rigged”—something completely benign compared to a similar term that used to be in common usage.  Even a perfectly good word like “uppity” should generally be avoided because of its unfortunate past associations. And replacing it with “articulate” is pretty transparent.

The beautiful thing about language is how loaded it can be with meaning.  And particularly in the American South, how frequently it is loaded with code.  So when using words that have coded meanings (and historic references), we should  tread lightly. People who really say what they mean and really mean what they say would rarely have need to issue a clarification.  Would they?

Or, wouldn’t they?



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