June 24, 2002
Ever wonder ...?

I don't know about anyone else, but I often find myself wondering in passing about the origins of some of the idiomatic phrases we use.

So I was happy as a clam to find this here site on the Origin of Phrases.

Cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey
Meaning: Very cold.
Example: I am not going outside.  It is cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey and mine are considerable more sensitive.
Origin: In the 1700s cannon balls and black powder were carried by boys referred to as "powder monkeys". 

One explanation has it that the balls were stacked in the familiar pyramid configuration with a wooden triangle holding the bottom layer together. These wooden triangles (perhaps as an extension of powder monkey) were also referred to as "monkeys". The trouble with wooden monkeys was that they couldn't take much abuse before shattering under the impact of dropped cannon balls. 

The next material used to make monkeys was brass. These worked perfectly in warmer weather. The trouble with brass monkeys was that they tended to shrink a little when the weather turned cold enough. This shrinkage squeezed the bottom layer up, sending balls rolling all over the deck. 

Thanks to Darryl 

Interesting tale, but not likely.   The boys were definitely called powder monkeys, and the triangles may indeed have been called monkeys.  But the idea that cold weather would cause enough shrinkage to squeeze out the cannon balls is fanciful.  Brass is an alloy made of copper and nickel and is quite stable. 

Considering the size of even a small cannon ball is perhaps 2 to 3 inches in diameter, the amount of shrinkage of the monkey would have to be a couple of inches to push out the balls.  Impossible.

Posted by tmonkey at June 24, 2002 03:52 PM
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