People have always been fascinated with monkeys because they resemble us in so many ways, what with their dexterous hands, their frequent adoption of a bipedal posture, and especially their humanlike faces. Indeed, monkeys and apes are categorized with us in the primate suborder Anthropoidea, the “human-like” creatures. It seems natural to wonder, then, whether there’s any connection etymologically between the word monkey and the word monk, which appears just a few entries before it in the dictionary and resembles it in spelling and pronunciation.
The answer, however, is no. Monkeys aren’t called monkeys because they reminded anyone of monks. And conversely, monks aren’t called monks because they reminded anyone of monkeys. Instead, the word monk comes indirectly from the Greek monos, meaning “single,” whereas monkey is believed to derive from Moneke, the name of a young ape in a versified beast fable written in Middle Low German in the late 1400s. Moneke itself is just a shortening of Simoneke, the diminutive form of Simon in Middle Low German. Giving the anthropomorphized monkey in the fable the name Simon may have been meant as a literate pun on the Latin noun simia, which means “ape” or “monkey.”
But wait—there’s more! That noun simia, which is the origin of the English adjective simian, shows further evidence of anthropomorphism in its own etymology. It’s theorized to have come from Simias, an ancient Greek nickname for a snubnosed man. (Simos means “snub-nosed” in classical Greek.) The word monkey, therefore, appears to have come from a name for a person, which was used because it reminded someone of a word for a monkey, which in turn came from a nickname for a person.
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