Why is it called a Brass Monkey?

Answered by Bill Hernandez

The phrase “It is cold enough to freeze the balls of a brass monkey” is a colorful expression that is often used to describe extremely cold weather conditions. But have you ever wondered where this expression comes from and why it specifically mentions a brass monkey? Well, let me take you on a historical journey to uncover the origins of this intriguing phrase.

To understand the meaning behind “brass monkey,” we need to delve into the world of naval warfare during the age of cannonballs. In the past, warships used to carry cannons on their decks, which were essential for combat. These cannons were loaded with iron cannonballs, which were stored in various ways to ensure they were readily accessible during battle.

One method of storing cannonballs involved placing them on a brass plate with dimples or indentations. This brass plate, known as a “monkey,” was strategically placed on the deck of the ship, allowing the cannonballs to be stacked in a pyramid-like formation. The indentations in the brass plate helped to keep the cannonballs stable and prevented them from rolling around during rough seas.

Now, here's where the connection to cold weather comes into play. Brass, being a metal, expands and contracts with changes in temperature. When the weather turned bitterly cold, the brass monkey would contract due to the low temperatures. As a result, the indentations on the brass plate would become smaller, causing the iron cannonballs to loosen and even fall off the monkey.

Imagine being on a warship in freezing temperatures, with the brass monkey contracting so much that the iron cannonballs would literally freeze off and drop onto the deck. This visual image perfectly captures the extreme coldness of the weather and the impact it had on the arrangement of the cannonballs.

The phrase “It is cold enough to freeze the balls of a brass monkey” likely originated from sailors or naval personnel who witnessed this phenomenon firsthand. It became a popular expression to describe frigid temperatures, conveying the idea that the weather was so cold that it could even affect the stability of the cannonballs on a brass monkey.

While the phrase itself may be a bit vulgar in nature, it has managed to endure over time, finding its way into common usage. It serves as a testament to the creativity and colorful language used by sailors and seafarers in the past.

The phrase “It is cold enough to freeze the balls of a brass monkey” finds its roots in the practice of storing iron cannonballs on a brass plate, known as a brass monkey, on warships. When exposed to extremely cold temperatures, the brass would contract, causing the iron cannonballs to become loose and fall off. This visual image of freezing cannonballs gave rise to the expression, which is now used to describe exceptionally cold weather conditions.