Posted by James Briggs on February 01, 2002
In Reply to: Mental Metalurgy posted by Word Camel on February 01, 2002
: : : : : : : Can someone please tell me the origin of the term 'brass monkey'.
: : : : : : : A 'brass monkey' is the term for the base for stacking cannon balls in pyramid shaped stacks onboard old sailing war ships. The base (brass monkey) was made of brass with indentations the size of the cannon balls. It prevented the cannon balls from rolling around when stacked.
: : : : : : : Question: why is this base for stacking cannon balls called a 'brass monkey'?
: : : : : : And similarly, is it connected with the young boys in charge of fetching the gunpowder being called "powder monkeys"?
: : : : : From the archives:
: : : : : Monkey:
It's cold enough to freeze the balls from a brass monkey is an expression with
slightly genital overtones used to describe very cold weather. The truth is quite
: : : : : In the old wooden Men-of-War the powder was taken from the powder magazine to the gun decks by young boys. These boys were frequently orphans or waifs taken off the streets. The passages and stairs along which they carried the powder were so narrow that only boys, and not men, could get through. They were known as "powder monkeys"; the cannon balls were stored in brass rings near the guns themselves. By analogy these rings were called "brass monkeys". On cold days they would contract with the result that the cannon balls would be squeezed out of the ring - hence the saying.
: : : : Maybe "monkey" was first used to describe a young person because children are like miniature imitations of adults. Perhaps the term was later applied to the animal for the same reason, or possibly because the clear distinction between animals and humans is relatively new historically. (Actually I think there is a famous story of confused Brits in the in the 17th century, who hanged a wayward ape they thought was a French Sailor.)
: : : : So Bruce's explanation makes sense.
: : : I'm quite sure we Brits hanged the ape with righteous ire. Throughout most of our history we've felt it a divine duty to tilt at anything that even vaguely smacks of the Gallic and frankly, I find that strangely comforting.
: : What? Did April 1 fall early this year? Surely Mr Camel and Mr Kahl should know better.
: : Anyone who buys into this cannon-balls on a brass monkey rubbish should look up the coefficient of expansion of brass (19x10-6/K).
: : A brass-bar of length 1 metre @ 50c will shrink to 100 * 19 * 10-6 = 99.998 metres if it moves to a temperature of MINUS 50c. That tiny .002m difference is INSIGNIFICANT when compared to the yawing and swaying aboard a seaborne craft.
: : Get real and look in the archives.
: Mea culpa. It never occured to me to investigate the coefficient of expansion of brass and frankly, I'm not qualified to dispute it. But I do know that language isn't bound by the laws of science, but by human being's imperfect understanding of them.
: Bearing that in mind, I'm keeping an open mind with regard to Bruce's explanation, at least until something more plausible comes along. I don't find the Victorian knick knack theory convincing and the Semitic pun explanation, while interesting, seems a little far fetched from a historical point of view.
: Margnanimously yours,
: Ps. That's "Ms Camel" to you.
As the one who originally posted the the 'powder and brass monkey' explanation, and also a bit of a scientist, I have to point out that a coefficient of linear change gets magnified quite a bit when applied to a ring. Thus, in really cold weather such a brass ring could easily expand enough to squeeze out the cannon balls, which had to be packed tightly in any case to stop the roll of the ship tipping them out all of the time.