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I read this expression in a text. It seems to be an old proverb about monkeys. But I am not sure about its meaning. Why 筋, for instance? Does it means muscle? reasoning faculty? Why would they be lacking?

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It means: "Monkeys are less clever than humans" or literally: "Monkeys have 3 hair less than people"

足らぬ being used for 足りない

and 筋 being the counter for hair

To add a bit of history/legend:

毛 doesn't stand for "hair" but for apparel, appearance or skill...etc.

The legend states that during the creation of the world, Kamis (god(s)) thought human and monkeys were too similar and removed 3 details (毛) from them.

A monkey asked to "god" (kami) why they could not become human. God answered, because you lack the following 3 points (毛):

<見分け>物事の分別、理性が無い

<情け> 情愛、恋愛、思いやり、雅な心

<やりとげ>最後までやり抜くこと、成し遂げること

(reason, compassion and sense of accomplishment)

http://iwasironokuni.cocolog-nifty.com/komiti/2011/07/post-6d0c.html

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Thanks a lot for the grammar and the context. –  ogerard Jul 2 '11 at 13:42
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What “three hairs” means is unclear, and “God removed three hairs from monkeys” and “three け are 見分け・情け・やりとげ” are just some of the many explanations. –  Tsuyoshi Ito Jul 2 '11 at 15:56
    
So... monkeys are less hairy than people? Whoever came up with this must have come from a very hairy ethnicity... ;-) –  Dave Jul 3 '11 at 2:03
    
@Tsuyoshi : glad to see that even natives are confused by this phrase :-) –  ogerard Jul 3 '11 at 10:03
    
@Dave: I take hair to be an image for something that does not weight a lot physically (the three psychological capacities quoted) or does not change the looks of your head, or distinguish you at first sight. –  ogerard Jul 3 '11 at 10:07

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