Colorful Colloquialisms – “Nie mój cyrk, nie moje małpy.” (Polish)

I was conversing with a coworker when she used a phrase I’d never heard before: “Not my monkey, not my circus.”  I understood perfectly what she was trying to say but I was still amused by the phrase, so of course I had to look it up.

Shocked monkey

Image via tanli at freeimages.com

A quick search turned up an entire page of results before I’d even entered thewhole phrase, making me feel like maybe I should have known this one.  It turns out that my coworker’s version was slightly different from the original, “Not my circus, not my monkeys.” It means, basically, “not my problem” or “not my responsibility” – “I’ve washed my hands of this”.  Everything I’ve found indicates that this is originally a Polish phrase: “Nie mój cyrk, nie moje małpy.”

This seems like a great use of an idiom to change a mood.  In a situation that’s probably mildly frustrating, at least (I assume you wouldn’t need to dismiss something as not your problem if there wasn’t a problem to start with), the frustration can be not only dismissed, but replaced with an image of adorable monkeys (generally considered a cute animal, though not by everyone, I suppose) causing mischief at a circus.  As icing on the cake, they’re causing trouble at someone else’s circus – so all you have to do is watch what happens next. And let’s face it, how can a cute little guy like this not make you feel better?

Squirrel Monkey

Image via buzzybee at freeimages.com

I’m currently trying to research the origins of this phrase within the Polish language.  Of course, this is leading me on a crazy, haphazard path around loosely-connected sites on interesting idioms – and I’m likely to get lost on that path. But it pays to wander, because I’ve found a couple of things that I think are very much worth sharing.

One site I stumbled upon is bab.la, an online dictionary for a variety of languages.  It includes the ability to search for idioms, which is not something I’ve found on many dictionary sites.  It’s not complete –  I’d like more history and not all of the searches I tried were productive – but it does allow users to suggest phrases and translations, so the content should only improve over time.

I also found plenty of articles and forums with favorite idioms (I know Reddit has had several threads in the past, for one).  They’re quite popular for amusement, but I find this interest in the sayings of other countries more important for its ability to create cultural connections and interest.  One of my favorite blog posts from today’s wanderings is this article written by Matt Lindley and illustrated by Marcus Oakley, but a quick internet search will find you many more.

I’ll likely continue looking into this and many more phrases, but for now it’s time to go get my circus in order.

5 thoughts on “Colorful Colloquialisms – “Nie mój cyrk, nie moje małpy.” (Polish)

  1. First time I heard the phrase (in Polish) was in the mid 1980-s: after 1985 but before 1988. I was a college student at A. Mickiewicz University in Poznań, Poland at the time. I heard it from a classmate during either a 1-on-1 conversation or within a very small group (no more than 5 people) and my impression was that he actually coined the phrase right there and then. I liked it and started using it regularly in the interactions with other students. It caught on.

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