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

Cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey

What's the meaning of the phrase 'Cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey'?

If it's said to be 'cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey' it is very cold indeed.

This expression, which is normally used in relation to the weather is also known by the derivative phrase - brass monkey weather.

The origin of the phrase 'Cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey' - the short version.

The brass monkey in 'cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey' wasn't a stack of cannonballs or a brass 'three wise monkeys' paperweight.

The 'balls' part of the expression is an irrelevant later addition - the 'brass monkey' was (probably) a naval cannon.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey'? - the full story.

Before you start, forget about stacks of cannonballs - this expression has nothing to do with them.
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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.

Cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkeyAnother explanation that is given for this phrase is that it originated with the three wise monkeys figures.

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'."

If 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. They are called on as the explanation for the 'cold enough...' phrase because they are monkeys and they are brass. However, their introduction to English-speaking countries comes far too late for the figures to have been the 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, what we now mean by the phrase is that it is cold enough to freeze testicles off (ladies, don't feel left out, there is the alternative 'as cold as a witch's t** 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.

'Cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey' appears to have originated in the USA in 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 are other oblique references to the phrase, which suggests that it may have been in use as street slang before it found its way into print.

In the USA, we find it 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.

In The UK, we find this in Eric Partridge's, A Dictionary of Catchphrases:

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!"

There are numerous early variations on the phrase and, interestingly, many refer to heat rather than cold. 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."

The first example that I know of in print that refers to 'brass monkeys' and cold weather is in Charles Augustus Abbey's diary, Before the Mast in the Clippers, 1857:

Whew, ain't it a blowing "Jehosaphat Bumstead & cold," it would freeze the tail off of a brass monkey.

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

- hasn't got as much brains as... (1868)
- 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)

So, why pick 'brass monkey' as the subject of these various phrases?

The first thing known to have been called a brass monkey was an ancient forms of cannon, also called a drake, or dog. 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.

The tail of the monkey (as referred to by Charles Abbey above) was a metal lever used to aim the cannon.

Most of the early citations of 'brass monkey' phrases come from the USA. Charles Abbey was a sailor who visited America and the brass cannon are very probably what was being referred to in his 1857 citation, which is the earliest known use of the phrase.

It might sound like the work of CANOE (the Committee to Ascribe a Naval Origin to Everything) but it's most likely that the 'brass monkey' that Abbey referred to was in fact a naval cannon.

The 'balls' are a recent appendage.

See other phrases that were coined in the USA.

Gary Martin - the author of the website.

By Gary Martin

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

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