In an episode of Inspector Lewis, the spin-off of the Inspector Morse detective series on TV, the highly secular Lewis refers to a group of robed clerics as “monks.” His theologically-minded partner, Sergeant Hathaway, corrects him: “Not monks—friars, actually.”
So what’s the difference?
Well, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia, a friar (derived from the Latin fratres and French frère, meaning “brother”) was originally any member of a religious order who had taken vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Some may have been confined to cloisters, where they led lives of eremitic contemplation; others participated in various public ministries. By the thirteenth century, however, friar was generally restricted to mean a member of one of the mendicant orders who had no fixed revenues and depended on voluntary offerings to support various services to the community.
Today, in the Roman Catholic Church, there are four principal orders of friars: the Dominicans (known as “Black Friars,” from the color of the mantle worn over their white robes); Franciscans (“Grey Friars” or “Brown Friars,” from the color of their robes), Carmelites (“White Friars”), and Augustinians, who wear black robes—but sorry, guys, you lost out to the Dominicans in claiming the nickname.
A monk, from the Greek word monos (“single, alone”) refers to a member of a religious order, usually Benedictine, who lives either in complete solitude (an eremite) or in a cloistered community, under a regimen consisting of prayer, contemplation, and worship, with no public ministry (unless you count producing tasty beverages like the eponymous Benedictine liqueur, yellow and green Chartreuse made by Carthusian monks, and Chimay beer brewed by the Trappists—all of which were invented to revive weary monks after a hard day’s comtemplation).
A monk is not to be confused, in most cases, at least, with a monkey, a small primate mammal with a tail, no liqueur, and a completely different etymology. Monkey originated as the name Moneke, the son of Martin the Ape in the German version of Reynard the Fox, a fable published in 1580.
The Bard of Buffalo Bayou leads a semi-eremitic life, filled with monkey business, among which is the scratching of his thoughts upon tree bark. An example follows:
A young, monastic oyster,
Too boisterous for his cloister,
Was smitten by a plump and shapely scallop.
As the oyster grew much moister,
He had an urge to hoist her
On his shell and take off at a gallop.
Through murky shoals he sped
Straight for an oyster bed,
To frolic with the luscious bivalve girl.
“If you and I were wed,”
The lusty oyster said,
“We’d shuck these shells and make a little pearl.”
The scallop was quite shocked,
And said, “You’d be defrocked
If you should try to take me in a tussle.
You shouldn’t run amok,
You shouldn’t run amok,
I’m no coquille St.-Jacques—
My boyfriend is a big and brawny mussel!”
“You needn’t take that tone,”
The oyster said. “Don’t moan—
If you don’t want to play, then I’ll just scram.”
So he left her all alone,
Then he found a cherrystoneAnd did a little necking with the clam.