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The meaning and origin of the expression: Cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey

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Cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey

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Meaning

Very cold weather conditions. Also known by the derivative phrase - brass monkey weather.

Origin

Some references say that the brass triangles that supported stacks of iron cannon-balls on sailing ships were called monkeys and that in cold weather the metal contracted, causing the balls to fall off. The derivation of this phrase is difficult enough to determine without such tosh, so let's get that oft-repeated story out of the way first:

Cartoons of pirate ships always come complete with the usual icons - parrots, peg legs and pyramids of cannon-balls. That's artistic license rather than historical fact. The Royal Navy records that, on their ships at least, cannon-balls were stored in planks with circular holes cut into them - not stacked in pyramids. These planks were known as 'shot garlands', not monkeys, and they date back to at least 1769, when they were first referred to in print.

On dry land, the obvious way to store cannon-balls seems to be by stacking them. On board ship it's a different matter. A little geometry shows that a pyramid of balls will topple over if the base is tilted by more than 30 degrees. This tilting, not to mention any sudden jolting, would have been commonplace on sailing ships. It just isn't plausible that cannon-balls were stacked this way.

For those wanting a bit more detail, here's the science bit. The coefficient of expansion of brass is 0.000019; that of iron is 0.000012. If the base of the stack were one metre long, the drop in temperature needed to make the 'monkey' shrink relative to the balls by just one millimetre, would be around 100 degrees Celsius. Such a small shrinkage wouldn't have had the slightest effect. In any case, in weather like that, the sailors would probably have better things to think about than coining new phrases.

Another explanation that is given for this phrase is that it originated with the three wise monkeys. The original of these was a set of carved wooden monkeys in the Sacred Stable at Nikko in Japan. In 1896, Robert Hope introduced their meaning to the West in his The Temples & Shrines of Nikko:

"One group represents three monkeys, one closing its eyes with its hands, this is called Mi-zaru = 'don't see any wrong'; another one closing its ears with its hands, called Kika-zaru = 'don't hear any wrong'; the other one closing its mouth with its hands, called Iwa-zaru = 'don't talk any wrong'."

Cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkeyIf you've heard the phrase 'hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil' you are probably familiar with the brass version of these monkey figures, which have used as paperweights since at least the early 20th century. Their introduction to English-speaking countries, and knowledge of the three wise monkeys, come too late for the figures to have been the direct source of this phrase.

Now, back to the real origin of 'cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey'. Anyone looking for the origin of this is likely to be put off the scent by the 'balls' in the phrase. Of course, the way we now understand the phrase is that it is cold enough to freeze one's testicles off (ladies, don't feel left out, there is the alternative 'as cold as a witch's tit in a brass bra'). Once we realize that the phrase is seen in print many times in various forms well before any variant that mentions balls, it becomes clear that trying to explain which balls were being referred to is something of a fool's errand. There may have been some journalistic coyness about using the current version of the phrase - it is, after all, commonly understood to refer to testicles. That's view is backed up by the fact that there are almost no citations of the balls variant in any US newspaper, even up until the present day. There's no evidence to prove that that variant existed in the 19th century. 'Cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey' appears to have originated in the USA in the first part of the 20th century and is clearly based of earlier variants. The earliest citation of that precise phrase that I can find is from as late as 1978 in the autobiography of Mary Oppen, Meaning a life:

The first taxi man George encountered in Brooklyn said, "It is cold fit to freeze the balls off a brass monkey."

There were earlier balls version - Bluestones' The Private World of Cully Powers, 1960 has: "Man, I'm so hungry I could eat the balls off a brass monkey". There's little doubt that the phrase was circulating almost the general public before WWII - some years before it appears in print.

In Arthur Mizener's biography of F. Scott Fitzgerald The Far Side of Paradise, he includes part of a letter written by Fitzgerald's wife Zelda in 1921:

"This damned place is 18 below zero and I go around thanking God that, anatomically and proverbially speaking, I am safe from the awful fate of the monkey."

The risqué nature of Zelda's life and writing style suggests that she wasn't referring to the monkey's nose, tail or ears.

Later, but still before WWII, Eric Partridge, in A Dictionary of Catchphrases, repeats this report:

Shortly before WW2, The Crazy Gang at the Palladium played a sketch wearing fur coats, hats, gloves etc. When the brass balls fell from a pawnbroker's sign, one of them exclaimed, "Blimey, I didn't know it was that cold!"

At this point it is probably worth looking at those early citations of the phrase. Interestingly, many early versions refer to heat rather than cold and the first known version of the phrase mentions neither balls nor cold. That is found in Herman Melville's novel Omoo, 1847:

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."

Other printed mentions of brass monkey that followed a little later in the 19th century are:

Charles Augustus Abbey, in Before the Mast in the Clippers, 1857: "It would freeze the tail off of a brass monkey."

John Esten Cooke's The Wearing of the Gray, 1865: 'His measure of cold was, "Cold enough to freeze the brass ears on a tin monkey."'

An article in the Illinois newspaper The Decatur Republican, 1868: "...every idiotic copperhead editor in the country, who hasn't got as much brains as a brass monkey..."

There are many other hot/cold variants of the phrase in print from the 19th century:

- less bashful than... (1867)
- scald the throat of... (1870)
- talk the leg off... (1872)
- as cheeky as... (1873)
- burn the ears off... (1876)
- had touched the heart of... (1878)
- singe the hair on... (1879)

All of these combine to suggest that the brass monkey in question wasn't a particular beast or object but merely a synonym for a generalized inanimate object. If that's so then, what was a brass monkey? It may be a reference to the three wise monkeys that pre-dates the 1896 citation above - although that would seem unlikely given the gap in the dates.

The young boys who helped with the loading of cannons on naval ships were called powder monkeys. Other seafaring monkey business relates to ancient forms of cannon called a brass monkeys, or drakes, or dogs. These were recorded in an inventory published in 1650 - The articles of the rendition of Edenburgh-Castle to the Lord Generall Cromwel:

"Short Brasse Munkeys alias Dogs."

Brass drakes/monkeys were referred to in J. Heath's Flagellum, 1663: "Twenty-eight Brass Drakes called Monkeys" and in The Taking of St. Esprit in Harlech, 1627: "Two drakes upon the half deck, being brass, of sacker bore".

There's also a nautical reference from 1822 for the monkey tail which appears in the earliest known version of the phrase. This was a lever that was used to aim a cannon.

It might sound like the work of CANOE (the Committee to Ascribe a Naval Origin to Everything) but, given these citations and the large percentage of references to brass monkeys in nautical contexts, it seems likely that the inanimate object in question was in fact a naval cannon. The 'balls' are a recent appendage.

See other phrases that were coined in the USA.