What Does Monkey in the Middle Mean?

Monkey in the Middle Meaning

Definition: A game of keep away, specifically with two players.

In England and Australia, this same game is called pig in the middle or piggy in the middle.

Monkey is the middle, strictly speaking, differs from keep away because it only allows two players. Once a third player is added, you are now playing keep away.

Origin of Monkey in the Middle

This game involves two players. One stands in the middle and is designated as the monkey. The other players try to throw a ball to each another without allowing the monkey to catch the ball.

If the monkey does catch the ball, he is no longer the monkey. The person who threw the ball last becomes the new monkey.

It is unclear exactly when this game originated, but the name first started appearing in texts in the 1900s.

Examples of Monkey in the Middle

definition of monkey in the middle In the dialogue below, two friends are talking about getting some exercise.

Ezekiel: Let’s go for a run! You’ve been saying you want to get more exercise, and I could benefit by losing a little weight.

Maggie: Sorry, but I hate running.

Ezekiel: How come?

Maggie: If I’m just running for no purpose other than running, I get bored and can only think about how out of breath I am, or about how tired my legs are.

Ezekiel: Maybe we should play a game that involves running. Let’s play monkey in the middle!

Maggie: We can’t. That game is for kids. People would look at us funny if we did that. Maybe we can just play tennis instead.

pig in the middle

In this example two friends are watching some little kids play outside.

Tyrion: Hey! We should go stop those kids!

Mila: Why?

Tyrion: Those two boys are bullying that other boy in the middle. They stole his ball and now they won’t give it back. They just keep throwing it back and forth, keeping it away from him.

Mila: Don’t worry. They’re just playing monkey in the middle. It’s a game.

Tyrion: Are you sure? The one in the middle looks upset. He’s jumping around wildly.

Mila: He’s not upset. He’s just trying to get the ball away from the other two.

More Examples

This excerpt is from a movie review.

  • Although no film in which two women play “monkey in the middle” with a man’s inhaler can quite be called mature, “Knock Knock” marks a step in that direction. –Chicago Tribune

This excerpt is from an article about backyards in New York City.

  • They started a game of monkey in the middle. “Can I be the monkey?” Michael pleaded. “You’re always the monkey,” complained Victoria LaPietra, who lives across the street. –New York Times


Monkey in the middle is a popular children’s game in which two or more players try to keep the “monkey” from grabbing the ball.

The child playing the monkey stays between the other players while trying to get the ball.