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Softly, softly, catchee monkey

Q From John Lewis: According to an online search, Lord Baden-Powell imported the saying softly, softly, catchee monkey from the Ashanti in Ghana. The saying has a Kiplingesque ring. Can you shed any further light?

A Quite a bit, as it happens. The expression is indeed frequently attributed to Baden-Powell, the founder of the Boy Scouts, largely because he uses it three times in his diary about his activities in what is now Ghana in 1895-6:

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.”

The Downfall of Prempeh, by Major R S S Baden-Powell, 1896. Prempeh was then King of Ashanti.

Though the book never achieved wide popularity, it’s curious that this instance doesn’t appear in the entry for the idiom in the Oxford English Dictionary; its first citation is of a listing in Cassell’s Book of Quotations in 1907, which is also the first in the Oxford Book of Proverbs. Even more oddly, it’s easy to take it back many years.

It appears in a book of 1832, Scottish Proverbs, Collected and Arranged by Andrew Henderson, in the form safly, safly, catch monkey. Henderson quotes it as an example of proverb creation in “rude and infant communities” and says it is “common among the negroes in the colony of Demerara”. Even earlier, the idiom is in the rambling autobiography of a well-known English actress, Mary Wells (later Mrs Mary Sumbel), active in the late eighteenth century and the early nineteenth. She records that she went one day, it would seem from context in London, to hear an itinerant black preacher:

Though there was no long-sounding chapter or high-numbered verse from which it was taken, I was convinced notwithstanding, by the arguments of the sooty Ethiopian, that patience and perseverance will overcome many obstacles. The words were as follow:– “Softly, softly, brethren, and you’ll catch a monkey!”

Memoirs of the Life of Mrs Sumbel, Vol. 3, 1811. Her Ethiopian isn’t to be taken literally; it was then a common term for any black person.

This is another example:

Prudens qui patiens” was, if we mistake not, the motto of the great Lord Coke. A sort of paraphrase of it is current among the sable objects of Exeter Hall sympathy — “Softly, softly, catch monkey.”

The Morning Post, 23 Apr. 1846. At the time, Exeter Hall in the Strand was the headquarters of the anti-slavery movement in London, so sable object is an oblique reference to black Africans.

These examples give the lie to another suggestion made online, and in an 1989 book with the title Scottish Proverbs, that it’s a traditional saying of Scotland. This assertion seems to be due to searchers finding Andrew Henderson’s book but failing to read his introductory comments.

The rest of the few nineteenth-century examples that I’ve found likewise imply or state that it originated in a native West African expression that was brought back in translation to Britain (we may reasonably conclude that its appearance in Demerara, in present-day Guyana, was the result of West African slaves being taken to South America to work the sugar plantations). Confirmation came from reader Mike Cahill:

The Koma people of northern Ghana have a proverb to this day that translates literally as “small-small catches the monkey’s tail”. Other languages in northern Ghana have it as well. It was explained to me as follows: if there’s a monkey in a tree, and his tail is hanging down, you have to move very slowly (small-small has that meaning) to catch him. In other words, patience and steadiness will accomplish your goal.”

The evidence shows that it wasn’t widely known in the nineteenth century but that it suddenly starts to appear quite frequently in British newspapers from January 1900 in reports of the Boer War. What is intriguing about these reports is that they all use the catchee form instead of catch (which has led a few writers into falsely attributing a Chinese origin to the proverb). This form is unrecorded before Baden-Powell’s 1896 book. He was garrison commander during the siege of Mafeking, which was lifted on 16 May 1900. During the siege reporters from four London papers were in the town, and it’s hardly a stretch of the evidence to argue that they obtained that version directly from him. So he certainly wasn’t the inventor, but he popularised the version we now know.

The phrase was later adopted as the motto of the Lancashire Constabulary’s Training School. It was advice to aspiring police officers that a bull-headed approach wasn’t the best way to nab criminals. This inspired the title of the British television police series, Softly Softly, from 1966 onwards.

Page created 19 Oct. 2013

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Last modified: 19 October 2013.