Historically Speaking

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Posts Tagged ‘Herman Melville’

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 »

Happy-Go-Lucky

Posted by Admin on October 18, 2013

If you’ve ever heard someone say they’re a happy-go-lucky type, what they’re saying is that they are happy most of the time and rarely worry. It’s not that they don’t have worries of their own or that they don’t experience anger or sadness or other emotions. It’s just that happy-go-lucky types roll with the punches and made do as best they can in a cheerful sort of way.

On October 13, 2010 the Sporting News website carried a story about the NBA’s famous Boston Celtics who saw the team one quarter away from an NBA championship. With quotes from their coach, Doc Rivers, sports fans had an inside glimpse into the season. The online story was entitled, “Chemistry Of Happy-Go-Lucky Celtics Bound To Be Tested Beyond Limited Minutes.”

The Oscars of 1966 saw some incredible actors walking away with golden statues in hand. The Eugene Register-Guard of April 19, 1966 listed out who won, what category they won and why they won. Sandwiched in-between all the listings was this one:

The award for best performance by an actor in a supporting role went to Martin Balsam in “A Thousand Clowns.” He played the older brother of happy-go-lucky Jason Robards.

On December 1, 1934 the Lewiston Evening Journal on their page entitled, “Social World.” While there were a great many announcements about parties and clubs and mixers and such, this one talked about the goings-on of the Happy Go Lucky club.

Miss Eudora Ashton was hostess to the Happy Go Lucky club Friday evening at her home, South Goff Street, Auburn. Cards were in play and high score was won by Stanton Drake and low by Mrs. Philip Tetu. The next meeting of the club will be with Mr. and Mrs. Roland Juneau, 19 Fourth Street, Auburn, Friday.

For those of you who read the Kate Douglas Wiggin (28 September 1856 – 24 August 1923) book “Rebecca Of Sunnybrooke Farm” this passage about Rebecca’s relations will ring familiar with you. But for those who either don’t remember the passage or who haven’t read the book published in 1903, the American educator and author provided a snapshot of what happy-go-lucky might look like to others.

It was in this happy-go-lucky household that Rebecca had grown up. It was just an ordinary family; two or three of the children were handsome and the rest plain, three of them rather clever, two industrious, and two commonplace and dull. Rebecca had her father’s facility and had been his aptest pupil. She “carried” the alto by ear, danced without being taught, played the melodeon without knowing the notes. Her love of books she inherited chiefly from her mother, who found it hard to sweep or cook or sew when there was a novel in the house.

In the July 4, 1868 edition of the Edinburgh Evening Courant, a Letter To The Editor discussed the Principalship of Edinburgh University and the election of Sir James Y. Simpson to the office. The author asked a great many questions and provided detailed facts to support those questions, including this:

His reputation in his own profession nobody doubts or denies; but his greatest achievement — the invention of chloroform — was more of the nature of a happy-go-lucky experiment than the inevitable result of real scientific thought. The principle of a universal anaesthetic had been previously discovered by the discoverer of ether, and all that was done by Professor Simpson was the devising of a more generally applicable and a more convenient embodiment of that principle.

In southeast Australia, in the eastern Victorian region of Gippsland, there’s a small town named Walhalla which, at its peak, boasted 2,500 residents although these days, it has fewer than twenty. It popped up during the gold rush of the 1850s as did other communities including the town of Happy-Go-Lucky. In time, the town was renamed Pearson, but when it was Happy-Go-Lucky, it had a population of 300 as well as a post office to call its own. Unfortunately, it became a ghost town and today, only ruins remain of what was formerly a Happy-Go-Lucky place.

When Herman Melville wrote and published “Moby Dick” in 1851, and used the expression in Chapter XXVII entitled, “Knights And Squires” where he described the second mate thusly:

Stubb was the second mate. He was a native of Cape Cod; and hence, according to local usage, was called a Cape-Cod-man. A happy-go-lucky; neither craven nor valiant; taking perils as they came with an indifferent air; and while engaged in the most imminent crisis of the chase, toiling away, calm and collected as a journeyman joiner engaged for the year. Good-humored, easy, and careless, he presided over his whale-boat as if the most deadly encounter were but a dinner, and his crew all invited guests. He was as particular about the comfortable arrangement of his part of the boat, as an old stage-driver is about the snugness of his box.

In 1699, the account entitled “A True and Just Relation of Major General Sir Thomas Morgan’s Progress in France and Flanders with the Six English in the Years 1657 and 1658 at the Taking of Dunkirk and Other Important Places” was written by Sir Thomas Morgan and included this passage:

The Redcoats cried, “Shall we fall in order, or go happy-go-lucky?”

At this point, Idiomation was unable to find an earlier published version of this idiom.  That being said, since the Redcoats allegedly used the expression in 1657 and 1658, it’s safe to say that it was part of every day language.  As such, it most likely dates back to the beginning of the 17th century.  As always, Idiomation encourages readers to find earlier published instances of any phrase on the blog.

Posted in Idioms from the 17th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »