I suspect that we are all familiar with the colloquial expression concerning brass monkeys. Most of the sayings have to do with weather – cold weather. When and how did this idiom arise, and what do brass monkeys have to do with the weather? Research on this reveals interesting information.
During the 19th and 20th centuries, small monkeys cast from the alloy brass were very common tourist souvenirs from China and Japan. They usually, but not always, came in a set of three representing the Three Wise Monkeys. You may recall that these sets which showed monkeys covering their eyes, ears, and mouths represented “see no evil, hear no evil, and speak no evil”. Old brass monkeys of this type are now collector items.
Somewhere along the line the phrase “it’s cold enough to freeze the tail off a brass monkey” became popular. People began to change the phrase to add additional body parts, such as the nose, ears, or testicles as an image of something solid and inert that could only be affected by extreme low temperatures.
Experts disagree, but the most common explanation of this phrase comes from ship captains during the very early days of sailing ships by the British navy at the time of the Napoleonic wars. Every ship had to have cannons for protection. The cannons of that day required round iron projectiles, or cannon balls. The captain wanted to store the cannonballs so that they could be of instant use if attacked, but not be rolling around on the gun deck.
The solution was to stack the balls up in a square-based pyramid next to the cannon. The top level of the stack had but one ball, the next level had four, the next had nine, the next had sixteen, and so on. Four levels would provide a stack of thirty cannon balls. The only real problem was how to keep the bottom level from sliding out from under the weight of the higher levels.
To prevent this, engineers devised a small brass plate, named a “brass monkey”, with one rounded indentation for each cannonball in the bottom layer. Brass was used because the cannonballs would not rust to the brass monkey as it would an iron one.
An unexpected problem arose with the use of the brass monkey. When the temperature falls, brass contracts in size faster than iron. As it got colder on the gun decks, the indentations in the brass monkey would get smaller than the iron cannonballs they were holding. If the temperature got cold enough, the bottom layer would pop out of the indentation, thus spilling the entire pyramid of balls over the ship’s deck. Thus, it was, quite literally, cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey.
Though no one knows for sure where this phrase originated, it is widely believed that the reference is almost certainly 16th to 18th century humor, just like it is used today to emphasize how cold it is.
“BRASS MONKEY BUSINESS”
BY: NEAL MURPHY
P.O. Box 511
107 Hemlock Street
San Augustine, TX 75972
Web Site: www.etexasbook.com