Brass monkey

Posted by Gary Martin on April 26, 2000

In Reply to: Brass monkey posted by High IQ on April 26, 2000

: : : : : : Does anyone know what the Beastie Boys are singing about in Brass Monkey? I confess, to this day, I have no idea - it came up in conversation the other day, and I just smiled and played along. Thanks for the help!

: : : : : If you'll type in "monkey" on the Search for a Phrase page, you'll find the phrase "cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey." It says:

: : : : : "Of naval origin. The brass rails that held stacks of cannon balls on ships were called monkeys. When it was very cold the monkeys contracted and the balls fell off."

: : : : : But I still wouldn't say this expression in front of the preacher and his wife.

: : : : ESC is quite right about the preacher. Here's a bit more detail:

: : : : 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.

: : : The story of the brass rings and the cannon balls is simply not true. It's s fabrication, a lie, an untruth, a fib, a misleading statement, a tall tale to mislead the gullible. Shall I continue?

: : : Of 'facts' such as these are urban myths constructed and a comfortable warm feeling of knowing something of interest is spread amongst that percentage of the population which fills the gap between the totally illiterate and the professionals.

: : Evidence?

: Look no further than the laws of Physics for your evidence and make the not unreasonable assumption that the temperature range will not exceed say +/- 50 Degrees Kelvin. There is other historical evidence but that may have been tampered with: let's stick to the immutable laws.

: Having made the calculations tell me how brass rings with the required dimensional accuracy to meet the criteria could have been consistently manufactured, assembled and used without disturbing that dimensional accuracy. Having done that tell me how the cannon balls could have been consistently manufactured to equivalent dimensional accuracy. Having satisfied yourself that these manufacturing processes were possible in the era of wooden ships why would the British Navy, or any other Navy for that matter, set itself on such a ridiculous course where, if my calculations are correct, a sudden change in tilt of the ships gun deck would have resulted in every damned cannon ball, so laboriously carried through those narrow passages, being sent rolling across the gun deck however well these so called brass rings were mounted. Having said all that I fear it would have taken a sweating powder monkey several goes to place a cannonball on the ring in warm weather and in cold weather, why the rings would be, by definition, useless. Where would they place the cannonballs then I ask myself or must we assume that battles were always, and only, fought during a warm spell.

: By the way, on my last visit to HMS Victory - in dry dock in Portsmouth, I don't recall passageways so narrow that only small boys, even if encumbered with a cannon ball or two, could pass.

I've had another look at this and I agree that the cannonball ring on sailing ships story doesn't really seem plausible (or doesn't stack-up/ring-true/hold-water or whatever).

Although the story appears in several reference works the laws of physics seem against it and I can't find any evidence that the place that cannonballs were stacked was called a monkey, or that it was made of brass.

Also, I can't find any reference to the phrase earlier than around 1900.