Historically Speaking

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Archive for January 9th, 2021

Freeze The Balls Off A Brass Monkey

Posted by Admin on January 9, 2021

Most people are under the impression that this expression is rife with sexual innuendo. The fact of the matter is, there’s a mariner history to that expression, even if the current nudge-nudge-wink-wink-know-what-I-mean commentary and looks are associated with it these days.

To understand the expression, it’s important to go back to the Golden Age of Sail. This was a period from 1571 through to 1862 that corresponds with the early modern period when international trade and naval warfare was the main staple of sailing ships. Of course, sailing ships included frigates, brigs, sloops, and schooners. All of this continued until steamboats started to take trade away from sailboats.

Ships during this time period carried their guns in two large batteries, one on each broadside. A few were mounted to fire directly ahead which left sailing warships weak, especially on the bow and most especially the stern of the ship, both of which were vulnerable to raking fire.

Ships at the mercy of raking fire had no guns with which to defend themselves, and with the rudder at the stern, the ability to maneuver the ship rendered the ship literally dead in the water even with intact masts and sails.

Rumor has it that the brass monkey was the dimpled plate that sat beside ship guns, stacked in a pyramid, and when the weather or cold, they would freeze and slip off the plate.

Unfortunately that is not true!

As reasonable as that may sound, it’s an sailor’s tale according to the official U.S. Navy website, Naval History and Heritage Command.

That being said, there were a lot of monkeys on sailing ships according to the website. In 1650, a monkey was a specific kind of cannon, and the lever used to fire it was known as the monkey’s tail. By 1682, a powder monkey was responsible for carrying gun powder to cannons. Monkey spars were small masts and yards on vessels, and monkey blocks were used in rigging.

What’s more, warships didn’t store round shot on deck around the clock on the off chance they might go into battle. One thing that was definitely a commodity on ships at sea was space, and decks were kept as clear as possible to allow room for hundreds of sailors to go about their day completing their assigned tasks. If a ship hit rough seas, the captain and crew couldn’t — and wouldn’t — risk the danger of round shots breaking free on deck and rolling around loose. Round shots were only brought on deck when the decks were cleared for action, and action was about to take place!

Besides, leaving round shots exposed to the elements was only going to worsen their condition over time, long before they saw action in battle … which leads to another reason to disbelieve the mythos of the dimpled plate. You see, if round shots were placed on a brass plate so they wouldn’t rust to an iron plate, they would still be in danger of rusting to each other. But generally speaking, metals — including brass — don’t shrink because of cold weather.

So where did this idiom come from?

In “An Incident of the Canadian Rebellion” published in The Worcester Magazine of June, 1843, something closely related to the expression was used in this way:

Old Knites was as cool as a cucumber, and would have been so independent of the weather, which was cold enough to freeze the nose off a brass monkey.

IMPORTANT SIDE NOTE 1:  The Canadian Rebellion was actually two rebellions in Upper Canada as well as in Lower Canada in 1837 and 1838.

The rebellion in Lower Canada was led by Louis-Joseph Papineau and his Patriotes [sic] was the more serious and violent rebellions (in November of 1837 and the following year in November of 1838).

The rebellion in Upper Canada was led by William Lyon Mackenzie in December of 1837. In 1838, Mackenzie fled to the U.S. where he lived until he was pardoned in 1948 which allowed him to return to Canada.

The end result was the union of the two colonies in 1841, which was subsequently referred to as the Province of Canada.

American author Herman Melville mentioned brass monkeys in his 1847 novel “Ormoo.” Thing is, the way the author mentioned them had nothing to do with balls or how cold it was.

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.’”

A decade later, C.A. Abbey wrote in his book, “Before the Mast in the Clippers: The Diaries of Charles A. Abbey” about brass monkeys as well and his expression had nothing to do with noses or how hot it was.

It would freeze the tail off a brass monkey.”

So what should we believe about all this nonsense having to do with brass monkeys?

Perhaps this is the answer to that question. During the 19th and 20th centuries, small monkey figures were cast in brass by artisans in China and Japan, which were sold in souvenir shops. Usually they came in a sett of three to represent “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” but most people are unaware of the fact that some sets included a fourth monkey with its hand covering its genitals.

IMPORTANT SIDE NOTE 2: Should someone have all four monkeys, they are actually a valuable collector’s item these days.

So perhaps the expression has far more to do with the fourth monkey in a set of Wise Monkeys, and brasses historical and enduring importance due to its hardness and workability that dates back to ancient Roman times.  As to who first coined the expression and exactly when this expression came into being, one can only peg it to somewhere in the late 19th century or early 20th century — most likely the early 20th century — based on the vague history of the expression.

Posted in Ancient Civilizations, Idioms from the 19th Century, Idioms from the 20th Century, Maritime, Rome, Unknown | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »