monkey grinder

(For National Grammar Day, and also Opal Eleanor Armstrong Zwicky’s 8th birthday.)

Mae Sander wrote a little while ago with a piece from the L.A. Times on snake charmers in India, which included this bit (with the crucial coordination boldfaced):

India had about 800,000 unlicensed snake charmers in 2007, according to a recent survey by the Snake Charmers Federation of India. Those now caught without a license face up to seven years in jail under Indian laws that aim to safeguard biodiversity by banning the possession, sale or trading of wild animals. Among the most affected, other than smugglers, have been traditional showmen: charmers, monkey grinders and trick-bear keepers.

Sander balked at monkey grinder instead of organ grinder ‘operator of a street organ (a.k.a. barrel organ or hurdy-gurdy)’. She suspected that the variant was an error induced by the fact that an organ grinders is often accompanied by a monkey. In any case, monkey grinder makes for an imperfect parallelism in the coordination in one sense (while improving parallelism in another).

Sander isn’t the first to see monkey grinder as an inadvertent error. Here’s a report from real life (in 2007):

So, the other night, when we were having dinner at Orleans with Trixie, the Villain, Tim, Terri, and Terri’s parents before the Pogues show, the conversation turned, as it inevitably does, toward monkeys and the appropriate uses of monkeys in restaurants. Herr Doktor Villain was proposing that it is basically never appropriate to have a monkey in a restaurant. I was suggesting that perhaps it was if accompanied by an organ grinder, but I accidentally said “Monkey Grinder”, a malaprop which changed the course of the conversation toward machinery geared toward primate grinding.

The writer notices that the expected interpretation of monkey grinder would be as a synthetic compound in -er, conveying ‘something or someone that grinds monkeys’. That interpretation would seem to be encouraged in the L.A. Times quote, where snake charmer and trick-bear keeper are straightforward synthetic compounds of the form N + V-er, with the N understood as the object of the V (‘someone who charms snakes’, ‘someone who keeps trick bears’. So parallelism in interpretation would lead you to an interpretation of monkey grinder with monkey as the object of grind.

(On the other hand, the intended interpretation of monkey grinder in the L.A. Times passage achieves a different kind of parallelism, in that the first elements of the three compounds — (understood) snake, monkey, and trick bear — are all names of creatures involved in street performances.)

Now, as a group, synthetic compounds have non-subject interpretations for the N as first element — but the syntactic relation in question can be oblique rather than direct: spear-fisher, spear-fishing, spear-fished have spear with an instrumental interpretation. So monkey grinder could conceivably be based on ‘grind [a street organ] along with a monkey’, with a comitative interpretation for monkey, a compression of the interpretation ‘organ grinder with a monkey, monkey organ-grinder’ (focusing on the monkey).

There are in fact actual occurrences of monkey grinder that seem to have this interpretation, unexpected though it might be: a Detroit band Monkey Grinder; a Chagall Guevara song “Monkey Grinder” (about a hurdy-gurdy man — lyrics here, with a video); and, most impressively, this Luke Chueh painting (acrylic and ink) entitled “Monkey Grinder”:

So maybe the L.A. Times writer (Mark Magnier) wrote exactly what he intended to write.

Grammar is hard; let’s go shopping.

One Response to “monkey grinder”


    “spear-fisher, spear-fishing, spear-fished have spear with an instrumental interpretation. So monkey grinder could conceivably be based on ‘grind [a street organ] along with a monkey’,”

    It looks like the grinder really uses the monkey to grind … money or entertainment. Thanks.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: