For this installment of ship trivia, I’m looking at my favorite (possibly) nautically-derived phrase: “Cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey.” It’s my favorite not only because it’s goofy and sassy, but because of the delightfully outrageous explanation that’s been given for its derivation.
People giving this explanation like to wink and laugh, then say, “No, no, it’s not what you’re thinking.” Then they say that a brass monkey was a contraption used on warships in the age of sail, either a ring or a plate that was used as a base on which to stack cannon balls. Because the thin brass was highly affected by the weather, when it got down to freezing temperatures the brass would contract so much that the base was too small to hold the cannon balls stacked on top of it, and they would pop right off. Hence, cold enough to freeze the you-know-what off the you-know-who.
Sadly, says my favorite etymologist at World Wide Words, the story is a load of bunk:
Don’t let anybody convince you of this. It’s rubbish. There’s no evidence that such brass plates existed. Although the boys bringing charges to the guns from the magazine were known as powder monkeys and there is evidence that a type of cannon was called a monkey in the mid seventeenth century, there’s no evidence that the word was ever applied to a plate under a pile of cannon shot. The whole story is full of logical holes: would they pile shot into a pyramid? (hugely unsafe on a rolling and pitching deck); why a brass plate? (too expensive, and unnecessary: they actually used wooden frames with holes in, called garlands, fixed to the sides of the ship)…
Really. My heart breaks. What’s more, he goes on to say that the phrase probably derives from a brass statue of a monkey, such as you find in the “See no evil” trio. In other words, wink-wink, the phrase really does mean just what you’re thinking. The people telling us the story are probably just laughing at our desperate need to believe that people in olden days were a whole lot more innocent than we are today.
The U.S. Naval History website offers a similar explanation. Remember the powder monkeys mentioned above? They gave their nickname to a number of things, including a monkey tail: a short spike used as a lever for aiming a cannon. The earliest recorded mention of brass monkeys in relation to the weather is a slight variation on the more familiar phrase: “It would freeze the tail off a brass monkey.” Maybe the phrase originated as a play on words for something that really did exist on ships at the time, and somewhere along the line someone thought it needed to be jazzed up by replacing the tail with something dirtier. Because people in olden days were more innocent, right?
If all things ship related make you as jazzed as they do me, and if you’re also a fan of fantasy (these things occur together surprisingly often), you may enjoy my novel The Sea Between the Worlds, now available in ebook and trade paperback. No brass monkeys, freezing or otherwise.