Below, I have tried to gather together, in one spot, the most reliable information (pardon some of the repetition) I could find on the infamous Brass Monkey
question. As I searched through various sources I was amazed to find just how many of them got sucked into the bogus cannonball story. The following should, for those of you who read it, help put this widely-circulated urban legend soundly to sleep (and possibly you too in the in the process). (<:)
Here is the actual text of a very informative article on Brass Monkey
by the Department of the Navy that was referred to in an above posting:
DEPARTMENT OF THE NAVY -- NAVAL HISTORICAL CENTER
805 KIDDER BREESE SE -- WASHINGTON NAVY YARD
WASHINGTON DC 20374-5060
The word "monkey" is of uncertain origin; its first known usage was in 1498 when it was used in the literary work Reynard the Fox
as the name of the son of Martin the Ape. "Monkey" has numerous nautical meanings, such as a small coastal trading vessel, single masted with a square sail of the 16th and 17th centuries; a small wooden cask in which grog was carried after issue from a grog-tub to the seamen's messes in the Royal Navy; a type of marine steam reciprocating engine where two engines were used together in tandem on the same propeller shaft; and a sailor whose job involved climbing and moving swiftly (usage dating to 1858). A "monkey boat" was a narrow vessel used on canals (usage dating to 1858); a "monkey gaff" is a small gaff on large merchant vessels; a "monkey jacket" is a close fitting jacket worn by sailors; "monkey spars" are small masts and yards on vessels used for the "instruction and exercise of boys;" and a "monkey pump" is a straw used to suck the liquid from a small hole in a cask; a "monkey block" was used in the rigging of sailing ships; "monkey island" is a ship's upper bridge; "monkey drill" was calisthenics by naval personnel (usage dating to 1895); and "monkey march" is close order march by US Marine Corps personnel (usage dating to 1952). [Sources: Cassidy, Frederick G. and Joan Houston Hall eds. Dictionary of American Regional English
. vol.3 (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1996): 642; Wilfred Granville. A Dictionary of Sailors' Slang
(London: Andre Deutch, 1962): 77; Peter Kemp ed. Oxford Companion to Ships & the Sea
. (New York: Oxford University; Press, 1976): 556; The Oxford English Dictionary. New York: Oxford University Press, 1933; J.E. Lighter ed. Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang
. (New York: Random House, 1994): 580.; and Eric Partridge A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English
. 8th ed. (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company): 917.]
"Monkey" has also been used within an ordnance context. A "monkey" was a kind of gun or cannon (usage dating to 1650). "Monkey tail" was a short hand spike, a lever for aiming a carronade [short-sight iron cannon]. A "powder monkey" was a boy who carried gun powder from the magazine to cannons and performed other ordnance duties on a warship (usage dating to 1682). [Source: The Oxford English Dictionary
. New York: Oxford University Press, 1933.]
The first recorded use of the term "brass monkey" appears to dates to 1857 when it was used in an apparently vulgar context by C.A. Abbey in his book Before the Mast
, where on page 108 it says "It would freeze the tail off a brass monkey." [Source: Lighter, J.E. ed. Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang
. (New York: Random House, 1994): 262.]
It has often been claimed that the "brass monkey" was a holder or storage rack in which cannon balls (or shot) were stacked on a ship. Supposedly when the "monkey" with its stack of cannon ball became cold, the contraction of iron cannon balls led to the balls falling through or off of the "monkey." This explanation appears to be a legend of the sea without historical justification. In actuality, ready service shot was kept on the gun or spar decks in shot racks (also known as shot garlands in the Royal Navy) which consisted of longitudinal wooden planks with holes bored into them, into which round shot (cannon balls) were inserted for ready use by the gun crew. These shot racks or garlands are discussed in: Longridge, C. Nepean. The Anatomy of Nelson's Ships
. (Annapolis MD: Naval Institute Press, 1981): 64. A top view of shot garlands on the upper deck of a ship-of-the-line is depicted in The Visual Dictionary of Ships and Sailing
. New York: Dorling Kindersley, 1991): 17.
"Brass monkey" is also the nickname for the Cunard Line's house flag which depicts a gold lion rampant on a red field. [Source: Rogers, John. Origins of Sea Terms.
(Mystic CT: Mystic Seaport Museum, 1984): 23.]
2 May 2001
Here is a follow-up discussion to the one above by the always entertaining and authoritative Evan Morris of Word Detective
]]: Dear Word Detective: On rooting through your site today I came across your explanation for "brass monkey," which I had believed to come from nautical circles, and that the brass monkey was a triangular frame, similar to those used in the game of snooker, though this was made of brass and not wood. My understanding was that into this frame, the brass monkey, cannonballs were placed in readiness for battle. When the temperature out at sea dropped to a certain level, the frame would contract and send the cannonballs on their merry way across the deck and toes. I stand to be corrected. -- Nigel Cotterill, Macclesfield, UK.
]]: That's good, because I have a little question. Let us presume that in the days of cannonballs winter came, as it does today, once a year, and that the period of cold weather probably extended from late October until at least mid-March in the northern hemisphere. We'll call it four months to be fair. Does it seem likely that any navy worth its salt would adopt a method of storing high explosive ordnance that would pose a grave danger to its ships' crews for one-third of every year? It doesn't to me.
To back up a bit, the phrase at issue is, as I will put it for my tender readers, "Cold enough to freeze the [gonads] off a brass monkey" or, in a popular expurgated variant, "to freeze the tail off a brass monkey." The infuriatingly popular (but nonetheless incorrect) explanation for the phrase that you encountered usually posits that the cannonballs were piled into a pyramid within the "monkey" frame. This is indeed a common practice at historical monuments on dry land, but would be a terrible idea on a deck rolling and pitching at sea.
Evidently, at least in the British Royal Navy, cannonballs were stored in holes cut in planks mounted close to the guns, an elegant method assuring both security and easy access. Furthermore, while the young boys assigned to bring powder to the cannon deck from the ship's magazine were apparently known as "powder monkeys," there is no record in contemporaneous accounts of life at sea (which are plentiful) of any storage device called a "monkey."
As I said in my original column on this topic, kitschy depictions of the three "See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil" monkeys cast in brass were popular tchochkes in Victorian living rooms, making metaphors such as "he could talk the tail off a brass monkey" and "hot enough to melt the nose off a brass monkey" common at the time. The "cannonballs" story is just another invention of what one wag has dubbed "CANOE," the Committee to Ascribe a Naval Origin to Everything.
November 16, 2006
And here, for easy reference, is what Michael Quinion of World Wide Words
had to say on the subject:
BRASS MONKEY WEATHER
[Q] From Peter Grace
: “Over here in Queensland, it gets pretty cool in the evenings at this time of the year (though it’s probably pretty mild by UK standards). The other day, I used the expression brass monkey weather and was asked to explain. Any ideas?”
[A] The full expansion of the phrase is cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey
and is common throughout the English-speaking world, though much better known now in Australia and New Zealand than elsewhere. This is perhaps surprising, since we know it was first recorded in the USA, in the 1850s. It is often reduced to the elliptical form that you give (perhaps in deference to polite society — for the same reason, it has been modified in the US into freeze the tail off a brass monkey
There is a story, often repeated, that the phrase originated in the British navy at the time of the Napoleonic wars or thereabouts. It is said that the stack of cannon balls alongside each gun were arranged in a pyramid on a brass plate to save space, the plate being called a monkey
. In very cold weather, the story goes, the cannon balls would shrink and they would fall off the stack.
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); was the plate and pile together actually called a monkey? (no evidence, as I say); would cold weather cause such shrinkage as to cause balls to fall off? (highly improbable, as all the cannon balls would reduce in size equally and the differential movement between the brass plate and the iron balls would be only a fraction of a millimetre).
What the written evidence shows is that the term brass monkey
was quite widely distributed in the US from about the middle of the nineteenth century and was applied in all sorts of situations, not just weather. For example: from The Story of Waitstill Baxter
, by Kate Douglas Wiggin (1913): “The little feller, now, is smart’s a whip, an’ could talk the tail off a brass monkey”; and from The Ivory Trail
, by Talbot Mundy (1919): “He has the gall of a brass monkey”. Even when weather was involved, it was often heat rather than cold that was meant, as in the oldest example known, from Herman Melville’s Omoo
(1850): “It was so excessively hot in this still, brooding valley, shut out from the Trades, and only open toward the leeward side of the island, that labor in the sun was out of the question. To use a hyperbolical phrase of Shorty’s, ‘It was ’ot enough to melt the nose h’off a brass monkey.’”
It seems much more likely that the image here is of a real brass monkey, or more probably still a set of them. Do you remember those sculptured groups of three wise monkeys, “Hear no evil, See no evil, Speak no evil”? Though the term three wise monkeys
isn’t recorded earlier than the start of the twentieth century, the images themselves were known much earlier. It’s more than likely the term came from them, as an image of something solid and inert that could only be affected by extremes.
Updated 24 October 2004
SNOPES.COM is a website devoted to debunking Urban Legends
(also called Folk Etymologies
- see folk etymologies & urban legends
). For the SNOPES discussion seeBrass Monkshines
In his book Word Myths
, Dave Wilton does any excellent job on Cold Enough to Freeze the Balls Off a Brass Monkey
and I will here summarize what he had to say:
1) There is no evidence that the word monkey
was ever use for such a cannonball rack or device. Ships did not stack cannonballs on deck but instead on wooden planks with holes drilled in them which were called shot racks
or shot garlands
2) The earliest example of the use of the phrase ‘brass monkey’ is in Melville’s 1847 novel OMoo
as discussed in World Wide Words
above (“It was ’ot enough to melt the nose h’off a brass monkey”). But that reference was to the words hot
and not cold
. However, he says that perhaps Melville’s use of nose
is just a euphemism for balls
from a perhaps older unrecorded version. In any case he says there is no doubt that the reference was to anatomy and not ordnance. And this surmise is supported by the many examples – see my quotes below – which involve anatomical parts such as tails, ears, and whiskers being frozen or melted off the long-suffering monkey, as well as nasty scalding of their throats, rotting of their guts, etc.
3) There may however, be some truth to the claim that the expression was born in the navy because the earliest examples are all in nautical contexts. And in the 17th century monkey
did refer to a type of cannon, and monkey tail
dating from 1822 is a nautical term for a bar used as a lever to level a cannon. Nevertheless there is no proof of a connection between ordnance and the phrase, and the 17th century cannon usage was obsolete two hundred years before the phrase appeared.
4) So how does Wilton think the term arose? Well, one thing he says may be responsible is what someone has humorously dubbed CANOE
, or the Conspiracy to Attribute Nautical Origins to Everything
, which, incidentally, is the title of the chapter in Wilton’s book in which our phrase appears. Also, he says that there is often a tendency to either euphemize the ‘saltier’ expressions (e.g. ‘freeze the tail off . . . ’) with a substitution of the offending word, or to leave the expression in tact but create a story that makes the expression non-offensive and justifies its use in polite society.
The following are some BRASS MONKEY
noun (used in various proverbial phrases, some vulgar)
<1857 “Whew ain't it a blowing ‘Jehosaphat Bumstead’ & cold,’ it would FREEZE THE TAIL OFF FROM A BRAFS MONKEY.”—Before the Mast in the Clippers: Composed in Large Part of the Diaries of Charles A. Abbey Kept While at Sea in the Years 1856 to 1860 (1937) by Charles A. Abbey, page 108>
<1865 “His comparison of distance was, ‘As far as a blue-winged pigeon could fly in six months,’ his measure of cold was. ‘Cold enough to FREEZE THE BRASS EARS ON A TIN MONKEY.”—Wearing Gray by Cooke, page 399>
<1866 “It was cold enough to FREEZE THE TAIL OF A BRASS MONKEY.”—Vigilantes by Dimsdale, page 128>
<1870 “It is hot enough to SCALD THE THROAT OUT OF A BRASS MONKEY.”—Big-Foot by Duval, page 148>
<1872 “TALK THE LEG OFF A BRASS MONKEY”—Secret Service by Burnham>
<1879 “Would SINGE THE HAIR ON A BRASS MONKEY”—Dictionary of Americanisms by Mathews>
<1907 “I’se most FROZEN—STIFFER THAN A BRASS MONKEY.”—Army & Navy Life, November, page 559>
<1920 “He came from a climate that would FREEZE THE NOSE OFF A BRASS MONKEY.”—in Letters of Carl Sandburg, page 175>
<1927 “It would FREEZE THE WHISKERS OFF A BRASS MONKEY.”—Good Morning by Carl Sandburg, page 208>
<1935 “That old pukey stuff! Why, It’d ROT THE GUTS OF A BRASS MONKEY!”—Of Time and River by Tom Wolfe, page 67>
<1943 “We must have looked bad enough to SCARE THE PANTS OFF A BRASS MONKEY.”—Boondocks by Horan & Frank, page 88>
<1957 “Jesus Christ, it’s cold out tonight. That’s the kind of weather that’ll FREEZE THE BALLS OFF A BRASS MONKEY.”—Certain Women by Erskine Caldwell, page 249>
<1959 “The weather’d FREEZE THE RIGS ON A BRASS MONKEY.”—Barren Beaches by Cochrell, page 4>
<1960 “Man, I’m so hungry I could EAT THE BALLS OFF A BRASS MONKEY.”—Cully by Bluestone, page 16>
<1963 “I do know you’ve got a two-star general HOT ENOUGH TO MELT THE BALLS OFF A BRASS MONKEY.”—Dead Are Mine by Ross, page 80>
<1969 “You got MORE NERVE THAN A BRASS MONKEY.”—Numbers by Pharr, page 185>
<1970 “She and me been in scrapes that would SCARE THE NUTS OFF A BRASS MONKEY.”—Garden of Sand by Thompson, page 424>
<1979 “A cold fit to FREEZE THE BALLS OFF A BRASS MONKEY.”—Wayward Sailor by T. Jones, page 6>
<1993 “A mud bath . . . ‘COLD ENOUGH TO FREEZE THE BALLS OFF A BRASS MONKEY.’”—Newsweek, 18 January>
<2003 “Sub-zero centigrade temperatures sound as though they would FREEZE THE BALLS OFF A BRASS MONKEY, whereas 32 Fahrenheit sounds like just another grey day. Daily Mirror (London), 11 August>
<2007 “It was so cold it could FREEZE THE BALLS OFF A BRASS MONKEY. We [[actor Pierce Brosnan]] shot that water scene in Oregon during what turned out to be the toughest winter in decades in Oregon. Of course. But that's the fun of making movies.”—Chicago Sun-Times (Illinois), 2 February>
(quotes from Historical Dictionary of American Slang
and archived sources)
Ken G – November 26, 2007