Also used: Get the monkey off one’s back
Meaning of Idiom ‘Monkey On Your (or one’s) Back’
To have a monkey on your (or one’s) back means to have a problem or burden that is hard to solve and which lasts for a long time; a vexing emotional problem that makes one’s life difficult; a longstanding worry or anxiety.
Monkey on one’s back often refers to a drug addiction, including alcohol addiction.
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Examples Of Use
“He had that monkey on his back for over ten years but he’s finally sober.”
“My back healed but now I’m addicted to pain pills. I’ve got to get this monkey off my back.”
“I had a rough time in the war and it’s been a monkey on my back ever since.”
“My lack of job experience is a monkey on my back. Nobody will hire me, so how can I get experience?”
Originally, to have a monkey on one’s back, or a black monkey on one’s back, referred sulking or being lost in anger. During the 1930s this idiom was transferred to drug addiction, specifically heroin addiction. It has since been transferred to any general and longstanding problem.
The most likely explanation for this idiom is that the monkey refers to the devil.
Monkeys have often, throughout history, been associated with evil, the devil, heresy, and other irreligious concepts. This is possibly because monkeys appear to be some kind of distorted caricature of humans.
As well, the devil has often been depicted as riding on a person’s back and has often been painted as a distorted monkey creature.
There are many references to a monkey on one’s back throughout literature, including in the tales of Sinbad, but none of these are any more likely to be the origin than any other, and all are quite probably references to an earlier allusion.
However, it is worth noting that in Eastern symbolism the monkey represents the distracted mind, an allusion to the monkey’s endless chatter, which incidentally fits well with the idiom.
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