Brr! Cold enough to freeze the… you can’t say that!
We all know the phrase ‘cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey’, but where does it come from?
The most common explanation is that old war ships needed a plentiful supply of cannon balls. The problem was preventing the heavy iron ’roundshot’ from rolling around on deck. A method of pyramid stacking was devised, with one ball resting on four, resting on nine, resting on sixteen. The bottom layer was then stacked on a metal plate, with an indentation for each shot, so that the lower level wouldn’t move around. The name for the plate was the rather inexplicable Monkey, which was made from brass to prevent rusting in the sea air, hence ‘a Brass Monkey’.
It’s suggested that in cold weather, brass contracts much faster than iron, so the rack would shrink and all the roundshot would then roll over the deck, leading to the expression ‘cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey’.
A nice, simple, non-crude explanation with a little history lesson to boot!
Or is it?
The story, whilst appearing plausible, is actually a concoction to disguise the real and much more vulgar meaning. It’s a genuinely a euphemism for being cold enough to freeze the you-know-whats off a you-know-who!
Firstly, stacking cannon balls on the deck of a ship never happened, as the rise and fall of an old warship at sea would quickly unseat any precarious formation of ammunition. Instead the rounds were kept in long racks between gun-ports. They were also wooden, and not brass.
Also, according to Dr Stewart Murray, Chief Executive of the London Bullion Market Association, the difference in thermal contraction between brass and iron in such a situation is ‘absolutely tiny’. So no matter how much the temperature dropped, it’s unlikely that there would’ve been such a marked difference in the size of the recesses compared to the balls.
There’s a reference to a similar phrase in Herman Melville’s novel Omoo, where a character is quoted as saying “It was ‘ot enough to melt the nose h’off a brass monkey”. It doesn’t take a leap of the imagination to convert the phrase to the appropriate British weather conditions and give it a cheeky twist to boot!
Although the nautical story is a nice one, when it comes to the truth about iron, steel and non-ferrous metals, we think it’s important to be accurate. By all means keep the story in reserve to give a clean explanation to small children, but with the record set straight, we can sail into the sunset, remembering where our balls should actually be kept!
This blog written with great thanks to ‘QI, The Second Book of General Ignorance’ by John Lloyd and John Mitchinson, as well as the QI Elves on Twitter – @qikipedia on Twitter