Monkey business

Posted by Word Camel on January 31, 2002

In Reply to: BRASS MONKEY - term origin... and more posted by Bruce Kahl on January 31, 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 different.
: 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.