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Archive for the ‘Maritime’ Category

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 »

Pour Salt In An Open Wound

Posted by Admin on December 9, 2010

Whether it’s “pour salt in an open wound” or “rub salt in an open wound” or simply “salt in wound” the meaning is the same.  Whatever has been said or done, hurts as much as having salt applied to a wound in the hopes that it will make everything better eventually.

In May 1965, “A Hurt Mother” wrote to Dear Abby wherein she complained:

I have never been a butting-in mother-in-law, but my sons’ wives never cared much for me.  I’ve never gone to their homes without an invitation, and those invitations were very rare.  But the wives’ families were always in and out.  I wasn’t missed.  My sons slowly turned away from me.  On Mother’s Day I always get expensive gifts with beautiful cards with verses saying what a wonderful mother I am and how much they love me! It is like rubbing salt in the wound.  One son hasn’t been in my home for three years.

Back on September 12, 1957, the Milwaukee Journal carried a somewhat amusing story about President Eisenhower.  It seems that he had taken some time away from his formal duties as President for a round of gold in Newport, Rhode Island.  The news bite entitled “Ike’s Gold Slips, Then He Gets Salt In Wound” relayed that:

President Eisenhower has been playing something less than satisfying golf since he started his vacation at this seaside resort.  He has been shooting two and three strokes over par on an embarrassing number of holes at the Newport Country Club.  And as though his own efforts were not enough, the chief executive underwent a shaking experience the other day.  A man playing in front of him shot a hole in one.  The lucky golfer was Gus Pagel, an electrical designer who plays at the country club on week ends.  Pagel, of course, was delighted to the point of jabbering to every person within range of his voice.   The president made the clubhouse turn and encountered Pagel, who told him in painstaking detail about his wonderful shot.  “I’ve only seen two of those,” the president said seriously.  “Well, sir, I’ve only seen one,” Pagel replied.

In 1949, The Spartanburg Herald carried a column by Robert Ruark.  On March 4 he wrote a piece entitled “Robert Ruark Says Navy and Air Force Carrying On Cold War.”  It was a lengthy piece and near the end of the piece, he wrote:

A lot of Navy feels today that if Mr. Symington fulfills an undeclared but fairly obvious aim to control everything that flies then the big Navy is a defunct duck.  Along these lines the Air Force’s successful public relations coups, such as stealing the Navy’s present show with a dashing feat like the round-the-world nonstop trip, is sheer salt in wound, and regarded as remarkably dirty pool.  The assumption is that a tour de force like the big round-tripper is coldly designed to impress Congress and the public with the fact that you no longer need a special air branch in your sea forces, and that ground-based airpower can win all alone.

The Glasgow Herald published a review of the movie “Sweet Devil” on June 21, 1938 that read in part:

British comedy films in many foreign countries have the reputation (however unjustly) of being close to the custard pie stage.  It would have been much better in this film if the custard pie throwing had been omitted — it was too much like rubbing salt in the wound.  Bobby Howes and Jean Gillie can hardly be expected to rise above such adolescent humour.  Such characters as t hey are supposed to portray never existed, except in Mack Sennett’s earliest efforts.

In the end, though, the phrase “salt in the wound” comes from the days when salt was rubbed into wounds as an antiseptic.   During the earlier centuries, when England was establishing its navy, most sailors were forced into service.  While at sea, punishment was often lashes with a cat’o’nine tails. These whippings would almost always break the skin, and salt was rubbed into the wound to prevent infection.  In this way, “salt in wound” was a very literal, stinging phrase.

And then there are those who will tell you that the early beginnings of the phrase come from the Bible.  Jesus did not tell his disciples, “You are the sugar of the world.” He is credited as saying to them, “You are the salt of the earth.”  Even back then in ancient times, doctors would sprinkle wounds with salt in the hope of fighting off infection. 

Since salt was an antiseptic that performed the negative function of preventing meat from spoiling and the positive function of disinfecting wounds.  The sting of having one’s negative behaviours brought to the forefront by the teachings of the disciples was akin to “salt in wound.”

Posted in Bible, Christian, Maritime | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

In The Doldrums

Posted by Admin on July 14, 2010

The doldrums is the name of a place in the ocean typically found between 5° north and 5° south of the equator, and is also known as the Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ).   The doldrums are characterized by unstable trade winds and oftentimes, ships caught in the doldrums can be stranded due to lack of wind  in the belt of calms and very light winds.  

There are people who will tell you that the expression “in the doldrums” alludes to the maritime doldrums,.   However, the region now called the doldrums wasn’t named until the mid-19th century.  The earliest known reference to the region’s name in print is Matthew Maury’s The Physical Geography of the Sea published in 1855 that states:

The equatorial doldrums is another of these calm places. Besides being a region of calms and baffling winds, it is a region noted for its rains.

So where does the expression come from if not from the maritime doldrums?  

The word doldrums was used to mean a general state of low spirits in the early 19th century. For example, in private correspondence from Sir Thomas Lawrence to Lady Morgan on December 21, 1810. Sir Lawrence wrote:

My evil genius does haunt me, my dear madam, but not in your shape on the contrary, I believe that it takes you for my good one, for it is very studious to prevent my seeing you. To morrow I cannot, Sunday I cannot; but I will make it as early in this ensuing week as my distractions will admit.

Doldrums and bother,” are weak terms for ladies of your invention at least, they touch not my state.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the doldrums in its archaic and obsolete form as meaning a dull, drowsy, or sluggish fellow.  It comes from the Middle English word dold which is from the Old English Word dol.  The past participle of dold is dullen.  The word doldrum dates back to 1795 when the word dold meaning dull with the addition of the suffix rum or rums, to indicate the plural form thus indicating that the person to whom the doldrums referred was suffering from low or dull spirits.

Posted in Idioms from the 18th Century, Idioms from the 19th Century, Maritime | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Let Her Rip

Posted by Admin on April 15, 2010

R.I.P. is the abbreviated form of Latin phrase requierscat in pace which means rest in peace.  Now anyone who has ever let her rip, will vouch for the fact that doing so is the farthest thing from being quiet, sedate, calm and peaceful.

In 1798 the phrase among mariners meant to move with slashing force as their ships cut through the ocean waves.  This is due in large part to the fact that in 1775, mariners referred to rough water as a rip.

The phrase “let her rip” is an American colloquialism that can be traced back to 1853.  The phrase is found in the 1859 edition of the Bartlett’s American Dictionary, 2nd Edition, and the phrase is described as a common slang expression that is a derivation of the British phrase “Let everything rip.”

Posted in Idioms from the 18th Century, Idioms from the 19th Century, Maritime | Tagged: , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »