Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Like Ugly On An Ape

Posted by Elyse Bruce on March 22, 2013

It’s not often that you hear an expression that’s so bold in its delivery, but like ugly on an ape is one of those expressions.  On October 30, 1988 the New York Times published an article by William Safire that opened with this paragraph:

“I knew the minute I said ‘card-carrying member of the A.C.L.U.,’” George Bush told Maureen Dowd of the New York Times, “a couple of your best columnists would jump all over me like ugly on an ape.”

It must have made an impression on author, Larry Niven as his book “The Man-Kzin Wars 2” published in 1989 used it in the book’s description:

Born and bred to hunting, they had never encountered a species they couldn’t treat as prey – until they met the canny pseudo-pacifists from Planet Earth. They nearly overwhelmed humanity on first contact, but fast as you can say “Ghengis Khan” or “Alexander the Great” the seemingly harmless monkey boys were all over the pussycats like ugly on an ape, with space fleets and strategic thinking that left the Warrior Race quite dazzled.  But that was then and this is now.  The pain of lost battles has faded and the Kzinti are back, spoiling for a fight, Larry Niven’s Known Space is again aflame with war.

So where did this expression come from originally, and how did it make it into a former U.S. president’s every day jargon?

It’s a fact that Gunsmoke (a television program that ran from 1955 through to 1975) where Festus Haggin — a role played by Ken Curtis (July 2, 1916 – April 28, 1991) — was known to use a number of colorful and amusing phrases to express himself.  Among the many that made their way into American culture of the day was “I’ll get on to you like ugly on an ape.”

Now according to the Texas Monthly magazine and writer Anne Dingus in the December 1969 edition, like ugly on an ape is an old Texas saying.  A number of Texans confirm this to be a fact.

Like ugly on an ape appeared in the early part of the 20th century as ugly as an ape and was a common expression referring to the physical appearance of an individual or how he presented himself in polite society.  Contrary to popular misconception these days, it was not a comment on one’s cultural heritage and as such, was not intended to insult those of African descent.

On September 22, 1883 the saying was found on the front page of the New York Clipper and Theatrical Journal, founded by Frank Queen in 1853.  It was found in the poem “An Actor” written for the New York Clipper by Cupid Jones, that offered this up as the first verse:

He was ugly as an ape,
Stupid, and vain, and vicious;
He had no chic, he had no shape,
His style was meretricious.

And in the New York Evening Express of 1843, in an article entitled, “Purchasing A Husband” the following quick story was published:

Susan, a country girl desirous of matrimony, received from her mistress the present of a five pound bank note for a marriage portion.  Her mistress wished to see the object of Susan’s favor, and a very diminutive fellow, swarthy as a Moor, and ugly as an ape, made his appearance before her.

“Ah, Susan,” said her mistress, “what a strange choice you have made!”

“Lo, ma’am,” said Susan, “in such hard times as them, when almost all the tall fellows are gone for soldiers, what more of a man than this can you expect for a five pound note?”

In the end, it’s uncertain when this idiom became part of the American lexicon, however, it is claimed by Texans as a long-standing Texas saying.  As such the Republic of Texas came about in 1835 and the expression certainly dates to at least a generation prior to that when you consider when the Republic was established and the use of the expression in a northern newspaper in 1843.

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One Response to “Like Ugly On An Ape”

  1. Philip Hudson said

    Ugly on an ape, ugly on a stick, ugly on a June big, whacked with an ugly stick, and so ugly she would scare a ha’nt (ghost) up a thorn bush. All Texan, but we share.

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