Friday, May 18, 2007

Softly Softly Catchee Monkey

I was in a meeting the other day, and someone used the phrase "Softly Softly Catchee Monkey". Seriously. I had absolutely no ideas what the hell they were talking about, although there wasn't so much as a flicker of consternation from the Australians and Brits in the room or on the phone. I guess I shouldn't be surprised. After all, when we had a discussion about one of the British analyst's accents, I noted that she sounded exactly like the Vicar of Dibley's ditzy friend (Alice Horton, nee Tinker). The (former) Australians and (former) Brits laughed and started comparing Oxfordshire and Yorkshire accents. The native Eaganites looked damned perplexed.

So...in order to make sure you're not faced with nonsensical British friends, I'm going to educate you, should you choose to be so educated. "Softly softly catchee monkey" or "Softly softly catchy monkey." You see it phrased both ways on the web, although the first one seems to be most popular. The phrase is used thusly: "Let's take a softly softly catchee monkey approach." It seems to be used a lot in business. It means, basically, to play it carefully and gently to get your reward.

There was a t.v. series in Britian called Softly, Softly that took its title from the phrase ("i.e., stealth should be used in order to catch a criminal"). And the Potto monkey is called a Softly-softly in English speaking parts of Africa.

Most online information says the phrase is an old English proverb, but many other posts identify the originator (in England) as founder of the Boy Scouts, Lord Robert Baden-Powell, who picked up the phrase while he was in Ghana with the Ashanti. 'If it were not for the depressing heat and the urgency of the work, one could sit down and laugh to tears at the absurdity of the thing, but under the circumstances it is a little "wearing." But our motto is the old West Coast proverb, "Softly, softly, catchee monkey"; in other words, "Don't flurry; patience gains the day." It was in joke suggested as a maxim for our levy of softly-sneaking scouts, but we came to adopt it as our guiding principle, and I do not believe that a man acting on any other principle could organise a native levy on the West Coast—and live.'

Germans pride themselves on having an equivalent phrase: Mit Geduld und Spucke fängt man eine Mucke [actually: Mücke]. (humorous, obsolescent). This version seems to fit more with Minnesota culture and the obsession with mosquitoes. So if faced with proverb-spouting Brits, be sure to shout back, "Let's take a mit geduld und spucke fant man eine moskito approach!"
  • Lit. translation: With patience and spit one gets the midge (gnat/mosquito).
  • English equivalent: Softly, softly catchee monkey.

31 comments:

She says said...

So, I just read this very phrase in the book I'm reading A Long Way Down. I wouldn't have had a clue -- from context or otherwise -- what it meant if you hadn't written this post. I had never heard/read it before.

So thanks for the PSA! You've edumacated this 'merican 'bout English.

Anonymous said...

Detective Chief Superintendent "Jack" Slipper of New Scotland Yard used the expression when he was hunting the criminals who pulled off the Great Train Robbery - a £2.6 million train robbery committed on 8 August 1963 at Bridego Railway Bridge, Ledburn in Buckinghamshire, England. I know this because I was told by a former detective who was there that Jack used to urge his men to "go softly, softly to catchee monkey."

ahr8tch said...

I'm an American born and 'raised' in the South and well into my 7th decade of life. I've known and understood this phrase since boyhood - maybe the age of 8 or 9. I'm sure I learned it from reading, for that is how we entertained ourselves when we couldn't be outside playing. There was no TV yet, and we weren't allowed to be idle. American TV - in its great vacuousness would not expose anyone to this kind of information. It doesn't sell product and it's not politically correct.


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Poonam Sharma said...

Your this post first firs page rank when you search the term softly, softly catchee monkey. Even before the phrase finder site that lists the meanings.

How did you get this brainwave? :)

neverknewthat said...

Thanks for this! I was reading a football commentator on the BBC website and he used this phrase. My wife is from Manchester and had never heard it herself, so apparently it's not universally known.

Thanks for this!

Ian said...

I first heard it in the series The Office, Gareth uses it : "You know the phrase 'Softly softly catchee monkey?'... I could catch a monkey"

Anonymous said...

why do you need this phrase explained? if it was carefully carefully catchy monkey I'm sure most people would understand the meaning. or quietly quietly catchee bird for that matter.
putting words together as a metophor is very common

Anonymous said...

Im british and i didnt have a clue, thanks for clearing this up.

Nancy said...

I'm a American copyeditor for a newsletter that targets a mostly UK audience and just had this come across the transom as the title to a story - had to ask a UK colleague what on earth it meant. Funny, because I speak German and the German idiom is one I recognized right away. Thanks for clearing it up!

Anonymous said...

The readers of this Blog sure like to advertise their illiteracies......

Scooter said...

One of those habits you get in as you get older is being able to skip words because you understand the general idea of the content. It doesn't mean you're illiterate in any way, it just means you have the reading skills to function w/o a dictionary in your hands at all times (as opposed to being so obsessive you can't skip a word). An American dictionary probably wouldn't have Softly Softly in it anyway.

I like to discuss language and really look at some of the phrases beyond a simple definition - a blog is a perfect place to do it.

Steffanie said...

I know its 3 years later..but this post just saved my life. :) thank you!

Anonymous said...

Why 'catchEE' and not 'catch THE'? I just lost a bet!

Anonymous said...

I'm a 44 year old American and I've known about the "softly softly catchee monkey" phrase for as long as I can remember. I don't know where I picked it up from, or when, but I've never considered it to be a particularly British phrase, nor did I find it difficult to understand. The phrase is pretty darn self-explanatory. I would have thought any moderately well-educated American who reads broadly should have picked up the phrase at some point in their lives.

Anonymous said...

"moderately well-educated American who reads broadly"?

Well, well, one does read about things previously unheard of here, doesn't one?

justteach said...

My daughter heard it as "Softly, softly, squeezee monkey." Odd, that.

Simon said...

I'm a Brit - but I learnt this phrase from my Kung-Fu master. Only just coming to understand it. On the other hand that Three Monkeys proverb - what's that all about?!

the man from Utz said...

I know it is a long time later, but I know the phrase from Miss Marples, can't remember which film though.

Mark B. said...

The phrase shows up in a Mister Moto movie. Moto reads it from a card on the desk of a Scotland Yard official.

Anonymous said...

"I know the phrase from Miss Marples, can't remember which film though".

Film! Film? Good grief. Whatever happened to the reading of books? Long beofre the films were made, Agatha Christie wrote the stories.

Perhaps The man From Utz would have known that it is Miss Jane Marple who is the protagonist therein.

As someone else has observed: "The readers of this Blog sure like to advertise their illiteracies......"

Anonymous said...

Googled this to make sure my spelling was correct before forwarding. Just won a contract that I had been advised to be very agressive about. Decided to take a different approach 'Softly softly catchee monkey'

Harish-Mumbai said...

My one Britsh friend-Sales Director of an engineering company in seventies-used to tell me this during our travels in India,when as a young man I would try for quick actions for concluding deal as soon as possible.

Anonymous said...

I do not believe the discrepancy has anything to do with compentency. I heard an abridged version of the phrase while watching a British television show and it piqued my interest. Its meaning had been obvious due to context, despite having no prior knowledge of it in its entirety. I'm a 27 year old American who reads ebooks when she is afforded the opportunity. After 44 years, I would hope one would've learned not to discourage or belittle anyone seeking to learn something new, no matter how trivial.

Anonymous said...

iirc, this phrase appears in Kipling's Stalky & Co. but I do not remember in which story

bal-de-vis said...

I've heard the phrase from one of the cast of the British show "Top Gear," and it's meaning has always seemed rather self-explanatory. I think Britain having had such a long history of colonial outposts in the far east, the colorful "catchee" must have been inspired by that...either a quote from a local, or a fanciful bit of characterization from an author. I love the fact that many here in America don't know it, because it gives me more of a chance to surprise and baffle people with it.

Anonymous said...

I heard this phrase in the British movie Race for the Double Helix. The Francis Crick character says it to Jeff Goldbloom who played James Watson.

OultonBen said...

"Slowly, slowly catch ye a monkey !", or, "Slowlee slowlee catchee monkee";
these appear interchangeable with using the word, "softly".
When spoken now by typically an Indian with dialect background the, "Catchee", quite obviously becomes, "Catch ye", with a noticeable pause within the Catch-ee and therefore alludes to Older English and probably British colonialism in India.

Wendy Pendleton said...

Funny, I looked it up this morning because I wanted to use it with other people in a FB message, but I was afraid they would think I was odd ... So I wanted to see the background of it. The first time I heard it it was in a movie I showed for my biology class. "Race for the the double helix" ...when I heard it I instantly got what it meant...why wouldn't you understand it.

Scooter said...

I've never seen that movie, and I'm the right age. I remember when Jeff Goldblum was young and married to Geena Davis. That's far enough in the past that it's garnered a post of it's own over on Jezebel: http://jezebel.com/remember-when-geena-davis-and-jeff-goldblum-were-marrie-1056666734

Anton Wilson said...

A magazine called "Gentleman's Magazine" in the July-Nov issue of 1903 attributes this phrase to Jamaica. It is actually legitimate Jamaican Creole.

Anton Wilson said...

A short-i sound in Jamaican Creole is an abbreviated form of "Di" meaning "The".