Gallivant and Monkeyshines

Monkeys on parade.

Dear Word Detective: I’m writing to ask about two words missing from your website. I put them in the search box, but got no return on “gallivant” and “monkeyshines.” Because I found the much rarer “hurrah’s nest” there, I shudder to think that the previous two are missing, as they seem to fall from my grandma’s lip in the same sentence. I really, really don’t want “hurrah’s nest” to be lonely. — Miss Bliss.

Oh great. Now you’ve got me anthropomorphizing phrases. I already had a touch of synesthesia. (I have hated the number 56 since I was a kid. It makes me queasy. Seriously.) So now I have to worry about words and phrases as creatures with feelings, eh? Won’t that make my investigations of their origins and histories akin to invasion of privacy? I can hardly wait to be sued by “posh,” which by definition probably has very good lawyers.

“Hurrah’s nest,” a 19th century American coinage meaning “confused mess,” is indeed rarely heard or seen today. But its origin is simply the joyous exclamation “Hurrah!”, dating back to the 17th century but used in the US in the 1800s as a noun to mean “an uproar, great commotion.” If one imagines a “hurrah” as a creature, it’s logical that it would have a very untidy home; thus “hurrah’s nest” meaning a tangled, cluttered mess.

To “gallivant” is to parade around in a very ostentatious and possibly scandalous fashion, often with members of the opposite sex (“I did not consider it right or proper that a lady … should be gallivanting about the country with those three fellows,” 1875). “Gallivant,” which first appeared in print in the early 18th century, is probably a humorous mutation of the earlier (and now antiquated) verb “to gallant,” meaning “to play the gallant or dandy; to flirt” (“Captain Jemmison went on shore to … spend his time in great dissipation … eating, dressing, dancing, gallanting,” 1809).

“Monkeyshine,” a US coinage dating back to the early 19th century meaning a prank, trick or just boisterous behavior, is one of several English words and phrases that draw parallels, usually not very negative, between human and playful simian behavior. “Monkey business,” “monkey around,” “more fun than a barrel of monkeys,” “monkey see, monkey do,” etc., all make being a monkey sound like a lot more fun than it probably is. “Monkeyshines” may land you on probation at college or even cost you your job, but you’re unlikely to land in the slammer by monkeying around (unless “monkeyshines” is used, as it sometimes is, in a sarcastic sense to mean serious ethical or legal violations).

The “shine” in “monkeyshine” is a colloquial term, also dating back to the early 19th century, with a number of meanings. “Shine” in this sense can mean “a party” (as in “tea-shine”), “a ruckus or commotion,” “a fancy for” (as in “take a shine to”), or simply “a trick or caper” (“‘I’ll boun you pulled ‘em out, some o’ your shines,’ said Aunt Chloe,” Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, 1852). The origins of this “shine” are uncertain. It may be simply a specialized use of “shine” in the sense of “radiance.” But it may also be related to the dialectical terms “shindy” and “shinty,” both used to mean “commotion,” and both related to “shinny,” a game similar to field hockey dating back to the 17th century.

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