What is the history of the Brass Monkey?

Answered by Robert Golston

The history of the Brass Monkey is quite fascinating and dates back to the era of warships and cannonballs. The expression “It is cold enough to freeze the balls of a brass monkey” is derived from a specific practice that was followed on these warships.

During that time, cannonballs were stored on the deck of the ship, ready for use in battle. To prevent them from rolling around and causing accidents, a dimpled brass plate was often used. The purpose of this plate was to hold the iron cannonballs in place, ensuring they remained stationary.

Now, brass and iron have different properties when it comes to temperature. When it gets very cold, brass contracts more than iron. This difference in contraction rates is what gave rise to the saying.

In extremely cold weather conditions, the brass plate would contract significantly, causing the dimples to shrink in size. As a result, the previously snugly fitted cannonballs would no longer be held securely in place. The contraction of the brass would cause the iron balls to loosen and potentially fall out, creating quite a hazardous situation on the ship's deck.

This phenomenon led sailors to use the expression “It is cold enough to freeze the balls of a brass monkey” to describe bitterly cold weather conditions. It was a colorful and vivid way to convey just how frigid it was outside.

While the exact origin of the expression is not clear, it is believed to have been popularized during the 19th century when warships were still prevalent. Sailors, with their rich vocabulary and colorful language, often came up with such sayings to describe different situations they encountered at sea.

It's important to note that the phrase has nothing to do with actual monkeys or their body parts. The “brass monkey” in question refers specifically to the brass plate used to hold the cannonballs, and the expression is solely related to the contraction of brass in cold temperatures.

The history of the Brass Monkey is a fascinating glimpse into the practices and language of sailors during the age of warships. It serves as a reminder of the ingenuity and creativity of sailors in finding unique ways to describe their experiences and the weather conditions they faced.