Ask Uncle John Anything: More Fun Than a Barrel of Monkeys

December 2, 2014

Uncle John knows pretty much everything—and if he doesn’t, he heads his massive research library, or puts one of his many associates on the case. So go ahead: In the comments below, ask Uncle John anything. (And if we answer your question sometime, we’ll send you a free book!) Today’s question is from Jeremy C., who asks…

More Fun Than a Barrel of MonkeysWhere in the world did we get the expression, “more fun than a barrel of monkeys”?

Answering this question only brings up more questions. Why did someone have a barrel, and decide to fill it up with monkeys in the first place? And why is that a fun thing? It seems like it would be a nightmarish disaster of monkeys clawing at each other, and throwing their waste at each other, all the while screeching and howling. This doesn’t sound all that fun, let alone the barometer against which all other fun things are judged.

(And for what it’s worth, we’ve never found the children’s game it inspired, “Barrel of Monkeys,” to be all that much fun.)

But fortunately there is an explanation. “More fun than a barrel of monkeys” is supposed to be an ironic statement, or at least a sarcastic one. It’s properly used to wryly describe something that isn’t fun (say, the board game “Barrel of Monkeys.”) The previous incarnations of the phrase lend credence to that. It was first recorded in 1840 as “cage of monkeys.” By the 1890s, the term had evolved into “a wagon-load of monkeys,” which would aptly describe something both chaotic and terrible.