Although going ape is an idiom, it is often considered slang instead of an idiom. See difference between idioms and slang.
This expression came about in the 1950’s.
Ape as a Verb
Ape has been used as a verb in English since before the 16th century when monkey came into the language. Before then, the word ape stood for actual apes and for monkeys. Monkeys had been seen to imitate human actions or to imitate actions in general, so the expression verb “to ape” came to mean to imitate unthinkingly. 1Cresswell, Julia. Oxford Dictionary of Word Origins. New York: Oxford UP, 2010. The expression “to go ape” has nothing to do with this usage.
Meaning of Go Ape
To go ape sometimes means to do something crazy or off the wall. In this way, it has the same meaning as ‘to go bananas.’ In fact, the two may be related. However, another meaning for go ape is to become very excited, very angry, or to lose control nd become violent, sexually aggressive, etc.
Ape, besides being used as a verb, has also long been used to refer to a clumsy or unintelligent person. It is unknown whether this meaning influenced the idiom.
The alternative “go ape shit” (sometimes spelled apeshit or ape-shit) has the same meaning but is considered vulgar, so many sources leave this version out. This version came about during the same general time period.
Examples Of Use
“Young girls went ape over Elvis. They often rushed the stage, trying desperately to touch the legendary singer.”
“The boss went totally apeshit when he found out I had been two hours late for work.”
A common suggestion for the origin of go ape is that it came from the 1933 movie King Kong. The movie is about a giant ape who is captured and taken to New York, where it escapes its bonds and goes ape (using all possible meanings of the idiom). However the expression did not become used as slang until the 1950’s, so it is unlikely to be connected to the movie. It may simply be an allusion to apes, specifically chimpanzees, or monkeys going seemingly wild over being captured and caged or in response to a danger or food. The similar expression “go bananas” may be based on this same behavior, alluding to chimpanzees or monkey’s “going ape” over bananas.
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|↲ 1||Cresswell, Julia. Oxford Dictionary of Word Origins. New York: Oxford UP, 2010.|