E-RFD: Freezing Balls Off Brass Monkeys
It was necessary to keep a good supply of cannon balls
near the cannon on old war ships. But how to prevent them
from rolling about the
deck was the problem. The best storage method devised was to
them as a square based pyramid, with one ball on top, resting on
resting on nine, which rested on sixteen.
Few landlubbers realize that brass contracts much more
faster than iron when chilled. Consequently, when the temperature
dropped too far, the brass indentations would shrink so much that
iron cannon balls would come right off the monkey.
The U.S. Naval History Center, wherever that is, says that the
above explanation is hogwash. Pure fiction. And, here, from
a site that deals in idiomatic expressions, is support for the Navy's
Don’t let anybody convince you of this. It’s rubbish.
evidence that such brass plates existed. Although the boys bringing
charges to the guns from the magazine were known as powder monkeys and
there is evidence that a type of cannon was called a monkey in the mid
seventeenth century, there’s no evidence that the word was ever applied
to a plate under a pile of cannon shot.
The whole story is full of
logical holes: would they pile shot into a pyramid? (hugely unsafe on a
rolling and pitching deck); why a brass plate? (too expensive, and
unnecessary: they actually used wooden frames with holes in (them),
garlands, fixed to the sides of the ship); was the plate and pile
together actually called a monkey? (no evidence, as I say); would cold
weather cause such shrinkage as to cause balls to fall off? (highly
improbable, as all the cannon balls would reduce in size equally and
the differential movement between the brass plate and the iron balls
would be only a fraction of a millimetre).
What the written evidence
shows is that the term brass monkey was quite widely distributed in the
US from about the middle of the nineteenth century and was applied in
all sorts of situations, not just weather. For example: from The Story
of Waitstill Baxter, by Kate Douglas Wiggin (1913): “The little feller,
now, is smart’s a whip, an’ could talk the tail off a brass monkey”;
and from The Ivory Trail, by Talbot Mundy (1919): “He has the gall of a
brass monkey”. Even when weather was involved, it was often heat rather
than cold that was meant, as in the oldest example known, from Herman
Melville’s Omoo (1850): “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.’ ”
It seems much more likely that the image here is of a real brass monkey, or more probably still a set of them. Do you remember those sculptured groups of three wise monkeys, “Hear no evil, See no evil, Speak no evil”? Though the term three wise monkeys isn’t recorded earlier than the start of the twentieth century, the images themselves were known much earlier. It’s more than likely the term came from them, as an image of something solid and inert that could only be affected by extremes.