Zinc and copper, copper and zinc

This is June, which is normally not the time to wax lyrical about metaphors for cold weather, unlike, say, February; still, having come across this explanation in the summer, I am loath to hold it back for six months, so here we go with “cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey”:

This term has nothing to do with testicles or primates, and a good deal of debate remains to this day regarding the origin of the phrase. In the days of smoothbore cannon, particularly ashore, ready-use cannon balls were stored near the guns. The balls were stacked in a “monkey,” a metal frame which was laid on the deck to help contain the bottom layer of the pyramid of cannon balls. Monkeys were typically made of brass (though monkeys made of rope were used as well). In extremely cold temperatures, the brass monkey shrank more than the iron cannon balls, and the stack of balls would collapse — or perhaps ice which formed under the balls pushed them up enough to break them loose. The root of the debate is whether such an event is possible at all, though the phrase appears to be more a traditional exaggeration than an engineering possibility.

My late brother, a seafaring man early in his all-too-short life, likely would have opined that even the most egregious exaggerations had some basis in truth. And God knows I’ve seen enough cannonballs stacked in pyramids.


  1. McGehee »

    6 June 2015 · 2:06 pm

    I’ve been leery of this since first learning of it, if for no other reason than it sounds like the “pluck yew” explanation for that other phrase.

    I’m fairly certain that whatever the actual source of the brass monkey phrase, the intent in how it’s phrased was exactly what it evokes; after all, freezing one’s body parts off has long been a common crudity, I’m sure since long before smoothbore artillery — why not top it with cold so deep that even a (fanciful, or just fancifully named) metallic item?

  2. CGHill »

    6 June 2015 · 2:41 pm

    It’s one of those things that we will probably never know for sure.

    Imagine someone in a store dealing with antiquities, finding a brass monkey, and asking “How much?”

    Storekeeper looks up, says “Twenty dollars for him.”

    Customer looks over the monkey, sees nothing that indicates maleness, and says “Looks like a ‘she’ to me.”

    Replies storekeeper: “It was a ‘he’ when he got here. Winter of ’83 just froze his poor balls off, it did.”

    Equally verifiable, I suggest. Certainly at least as entertaining.

  3. fillyjonk »

    6 June 2015 · 3:49 pm

    I’m assuming the “welldigger’s arse” (or ass*) explanation has a much more literal origin.

    (*Or other anatomical part “down there,” as I’ve also heard it)

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