The brass monkey

The origin of the term ‘freezing the balls off a brass monkey’

The brass monkey

There are many stories about the origin of the term ‘freezing the balls off a brass monkey’. Do you think the version in this week’s Friday Funnies is the real deal?

It was necessary to keep a good supply of cannon balls near the cannon on old war ships. The problem was how to prevent them from rolling around the deck. The storage method devised was to stack them as a square based pyramid, with one ball on top, resting on four, resting on nine, which rested on 16. Thus, a supply of 30 cannon balls could be stacked in a small area right next to the cannon.

There was only one problem – how to prevent the bottom layer from sliding/rolling from under the others.

The solution was a metal plate with 16 round indentations, called, for reasons unknown, a monkey. But if this plate was made of iron, the iron balls would quickly rust to it. The solution to the rusting problem was to make them of brass – hence, brass monkeys. 

Few landlubbers realise that brass contracts much more than iron when chilled. Consequently, when the temperature dropped too far, the brass indentations would shrink so much that the iron cannon balls would come right off the monkey. 

Thus, it was quite literally, cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey. And all this time, folks thought that was just a vulgar expression.



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