Historically Speaking

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Posts Tagged ‘1843’

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 »

Like Ugly On An Ape

Posted by Admin on March 22, 2013

It’s not often that you hear an expression that’s so bold in its delivery, but like ugly on an ape is one of those expressions.  On October 30, 1988 the New York Times published an article by William Safire that opened with this paragraph:

“I knew the minute I said ‘card-carrying member of the A.C.L.U.,’” George Bush told Maureen Dowd of the New York Times, “a couple of your best columnists would jump all over me like ugly on an ape.”

It must have made an impression on author, Larry Niven as his book “The Man-Kzin Wars 2” published in 1989 used it in the book’s description:

Born and bred to hunting, they had never encountered a species they couldn’t treat as prey – until they met the canny pseudo-pacifists from Planet Earth. They nearly overwhelmed humanity on first contact, but fast as you can say “Ghengis Khan” or “Alexander the Great” the seemingly harmless monkey boys were all over the pussycats like ugly on an ape, with space fleets and strategic thinking that left the Warrior Race quite dazzled.  But that was then and this is now.  The pain of lost battles has faded and the Kzinti are back, spoiling for a fight, Larry Niven’s Known Space is again aflame with war.

So where did this expression come from originally, and how did it make it into a former U.S. president’s every day jargon?

It’s a fact that Gunsmoke (a television program that ran from 1955 through to 1975) where Festus Haggin — a role played by Ken Curtis (July 2, 1916 – April 28, 1991) — was known to use a number of colorful and amusing phrases to express himself.  Among the many that made their way into American culture of the day was “I’ll get on to you like ugly on an ape.”

Now according to the Texas Monthly magazine and writer Anne Dingus in the December 1969 edition, like ugly on an ape is an old Texas saying.  A number of Texans confirm this to be a fact.

Like ugly on an ape appeared in the early part of the 20th century as ugly as an ape and was a common expression referring to the physical appearance of an individual or how he presented himself in polite society.  Contrary to popular misconception these days, it was not a comment on one’s cultural heritage and as such, was not intended to insult those of African descent.

On September 22, 1883 the saying was found on the front page of the New York Clipper and Theatrical Journal, founded by Frank Queen in 1853.  It was found in the poem “An Actor” written for the New York Clipper by Cupid Jones, that offered this up as the first verse:

He was ugly as an ape,
Stupid, and vain, and vicious;
He had no chic, he had no shape,
His style was meretricious.

And in the New York Evening Express of 1843, in an article entitled, “Purchasing A Husband” the following quick story was published:

Susan, a country girl desirous of matrimony, received from her mistress the present of a five pound bank note for a marriage portion.  Her mistress wished to see the object of Susan’s favor, and a very diminutive fellow, swarthy as a Moor, and ugly as an ape, made his appearance before her.

“Ah, Susan,” said her mistress, “what a strange choice you have made!”

“Lo, ma’am,” said Susan, “in such hard times as them, when almost all the tall fellows are gone for soldiers, what more of a man than this can you expect for a five pound note?”

In the end, it’s uncertain when this idiom became part of the American lexicon, however, it is claimed by Texans as a long-standing Texas saying.  As such the Republic of Texas came about in 1835 and the expression certainly dates to at least a generation prior to that when you consider when the Republic was established and the use of the expression in a northern newspaper in 1843.

Posted in Idioms from the 19th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Dog Days

Posted by Admin on October 12, 2010

When someone talks about dog days, they either mean those blisteringly hot days in the dead of summer or they’re referring to a period of stagnation.  Either way, dog days are draining days.

The traditional “dog days” of summer fall between early July and mid-August and are noted for their extreme heat and humidity.  In the Mediterranean, this period coincided with hot days that were plagued with disease and discomfort.

Sirius is the “dog star” from the constellation Canis Major (Latin for “Big Dog”), hence the name.  Sirius, the “dog star,” is within the constellation Canis Major and is the brightest in the heavens.

During this time of year, the star Sirius is at its brightest and can be seen rising alongside the sun.  In fact, the feast day of Saint Roch, the patron saint of dogs, just happens to be August 16.  

Natalie Babbitt’s book, The Prologue of Tuck Everlasting was published in 1975 and is set in the first week of August.  In the novel, the author wrote:

These are strange and breathless days, the dog days, when people are led to do things they are sure to be sorry for after.

There is a very descriptive use of the phrase “dog days” in Charles Dickens’ 1843 novel,  A Christmas Carol, that states:

Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grind-stone, Scrooge! A squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shrivelled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin. He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog days; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas.

And in William Shakespeare’s King Henry VIII written in 1613, Porter and his Man are talking in the Palace Yard in Act 5, Scene 4.

MAN
The spoons will be the bigger, sir.  There is a fellow somewhat near the door, he should be a brazier by his face, for o’ my conscience twenty of the dog-days now reign in’s nose.  All that stand about him are under the line; they need no other penance.”

The phrase actually dates back to the Egyptians.  They believed that the star gave off extra heat and humidity to augment the already formidable heat of the sun.  In fact, dog days coincided with the annual flooding of the Nile which was important for a good harvest.

Posted in Ancient Civilizations, Egypt, Greece, Idioms from the 19th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Fly Off The Handle

Posted by Admin on June 18, 2010

The metaphoric expression “fly off the handle” is an Americanism that goes back to pioneer days when frontiersman whittled their own handles and attached axe heads to those handles.  The axe heads were shipped from the industrialized East coast which meant that if a frontiersman wasn’t much of a carpenter, the axe head may not be as securely attached to the handle as one might hope it would be.

Because of this, axeheads were known to “fly off the handle” while being used and if anyone was nearby, there was a fairly good chance that either the bystander or the axeman would be injured by the flying axe head. 

The expression was recorded in John Neal‘s 1825 novel Brother Jonathan as “off the handle.”  The version of “fly off the handle” happened in Canadian author, Thomas C. Haliburton‘s book The Attaché also known as Sam Slick in England, which was published 18 years later in 1843.

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

Dead As A Doornail

Posted by Admin on May 26, 2010

The phrase “dead as a doornail” is an odd sort of phrase.  After all, one would scarcely think of a doornail as being alive so referring to it as being dead is equally amusing.  However, the term has nothing to do with whether a nail is a living, breathing entity.  When a nail is hammered into a piece of wood and the end is flattened so the nail cannot be removed, the nail is said to be dead since it can’t be removed and reused.

The earliest known version of this phrase is found in the English poem “William of Palerne” written by William Langland some time between 1335 and 1361, as commissioned by Humphrey de Bohun, 6th Earl of Hereford. The poem was a translation of the poem “Guillaume de Palerne” written in 1200, by William of Palerne as commissioned by Countess Yolande, daughter of Baldwin IV, Count of Flanders by William of Palerne.  In the English version, the following line is found:

“For but ich haue bote of mi bale I am ded as dorenail.”

Of course, William Shakespeare being the prolific writer he was found a place for the phrase in his play of 1592, “Henry VI” in Part II, Act IV, Scene 10 where Jack Cade says to Alexander Iden, a poor esquire of Kent:

JACK CADE:
Brave thee! ay, by the best blood that ever was
broached, and beard thee too. Look on me well: I
have eat no meat these five days; yet, come thou and
thy five men, and if I do not leave you all as
dead
as a doornail
, I pray God I may never eat grass more.

In 1843, Charles Dickens use the phrase with great effect in his work  “A Christmas Carol in Prose, Being a Ghost Story of Christmas” where he wrote:

“Old Marley was as dead as a door–nail. Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door–nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin–nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door–nail.”

Posted in Idioms from the 13th Century, Idioms from the 14th Century, Idioms from the 16th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »