phrases, sayings, idioms and expressions at

Monkey; brass monkey

Posted by R. Berg on January 31, 2002

In Reply to: Idle speculation and a plea for the OED posted by Word Camel 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"?

: I am wondering if the "Brass Monkey" doesn't have its explanation in the word "key" - meaning "any means of control, especially of entry and possession"? It would seem to fit the function of the brass monkey better than any reference to the Animal.

: So all this makes me want to know more about the word "monkey".

: I looked up the derivation of "monkey" in my dictionary and it says "possibly from Middle Low German Moneke, the name of the ape's son in Raynard the Fox." Frankly I am surprised to find Middle Low Germans discussing apes at all. Why were monkeys called monkeys?

: Does anyone have an OED? R Berg?

: Just a twisted thought from my fevered brain,

: Camel

The OED says:
The MLG. version of "Reynard the Fox" has (only once, l. 6161) "Moncke" as the name of the son of Martin the Ape; and early in the 14th c. the same character is mentioned as "Monnekin" . . . by the Hainaulter Jean de Condé . . . . As the name does not occur in any other version of "Reynard," the Eng. word can hardly be derived from the story. But it is not unlikely that the proper name may represent an otherwise unrecorded MLG. "moneke," MDu. "monnekijn," a colloquial word for monkey, and that this may have been brought to England by showmen from the continent. The MLG. and MDu. word would appear to be a dim. (with suffix "-ke," "-kin""; see "-KIN") of some form of the Rom. word which appears as early mod. F. "monne" (16-17th c.), It. "monna" (earlier "mona"), Sp., Pg. "mona" [etc.]. . . . The origin of the Rom. word has not been discovered.

The OED gives the first three senses of the word in this order: "the simian animal"; "one who resembles a monkey in appearance or behaviour; esp. a mimic, or one who performs comical antics"; "used as a term of playful contempt, chiefly of young people."

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