organ grinder

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An organ grinder with a monkey in 19th-century Cincinnati, Ohio, USA.

From the repetitive grinding involved in playing a barrel organ. In figurative senses, from the common 19th-century practice of training monkeys to dance to an organ grinder's music in order to perform on the street and solicit donations and spare change.



organ grinder (plural organ grinders)

  1. The player of a barrel organ.
    Synonym: barrel organist
    • 1903 October, Jack London, chapter XXIII, in The People of the Abyss, New York, N.Y.: The Macmillan Company; London: Macmillan & Co., Ltd., →OCLC:
      There is one beautiful sight in the East End, and only one, and it is the children dancing in the street when the organ-grinder goes his round.
    • 1903–1906, O. Henry [pseudonym; William Sydney Porter], “The Easter of the Soul”, in The Voice of the City, complete edition, Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Doran & Company, published 1908, →OCLC, page 141:
      The organ-grinders were at work; but they were always precocious harbingers. It was near enough spring for them to go penny-hunting when the skating ball dropped at the park.
    • 1915, W[illiam] Somerset Maugham, chapter LXXXVI, in Of Human Bondage, New York, N.Y.: George H[enry] Doran Company, →OCLC:
      “You should read Spanish,” he said. “It is a noble tongue. It has not the mellifluousness of Italian, Italian is the language of tenors and organ-grinders, but it has grandeur: it does not ripple like a brook in a garden, but it surges tumultuous like a mighty river in flood.”
    • 1919 October 20, Virginia Woolf, Night and Day, London: Duckworth and Company [], →OCLC:
      Thus the vision of humanity appeared to be in some way connected with Bloomsbury, and faded distinctly by the time she crossed the main road; then a belated organ-grinder in Holborn set her thoughts dancing incongruously; []
    • 1929, George Orwell, “Beggars in London”, in An Inquiry into “Civic Progress” in England:
      Those who cannot play any instrument wheel a gramophone through the streets on a barrow, but the largest number of these street musicians are organ grinders.
  2. (figurative) The person who is in charge, rather than a lackey or representative; the person truly responsible for another's actions.
    Synonym: the organ grinder, not the monkey
    I want to speak to the organ grinder, not the monkey.

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