Cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey
There have been many unproven attempts to attribute a naval origin to this expression. There is rather more evidence that the expression is a literal and rather vulgar reference to the anatomical parts of a monkey figurine made from brass, and is first cited as slang, according to Eric Partridge’s Dictionary of Historical Slang, from the late 19th/early 20th century. The popular and often quoted misconception claims the expression originated in the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic era, maintaining that brass monkeys were triangular brass frames, similar to the ones used to rack snooker or billiard balls, only much larger, in which cannonballs were stacked in pyramid shapes. According to the story, in very cold weather these brass frames would contract (in some versions the cannonballs also contract) causing the cannonballs to fall off the brass monkey. Hence giving rise to the expression cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey. Why and how this story came about remains a mystery. David Wilton in his book Word Myths says that attributing a literal, nautical origin could simply be an attempt to make the expression inoffensive, thereby justifying its use in polite company during the late Victorian era. What makes the nautical origin even more dubious is that no such brass frames have ever been found as antiques or relics from a very famous navy that has preserved many of its old artefacts. It would also be highly stupid, if not dangerous, to stack or store cannonballs in this way on pitching or rolling decks, and a highly professional navy was unlikely to live with such a problem every time the weather got cold. The Royal Navy in fact used sturdy wooden slats with holes in them, called ‘shot garlands’, to accommodate cannonballs on deck. There is no mention of a brass monkey being a framework for cannonballs in the OED or any other reputable dictionary for that matter. The only monkeys aboard ships of that era were as follows. There were the small, tight fitting monkey jackets that the sailors wore and there were the powder monkeys, the young lads who ferried kegs of powder from the magazine to the guns. A monkey boat was a small boat used for ferrying supplies. A monkey rail was the small rail above the quarter-deck rail and monkey was also the name for a small-bore carronade usually mounted on the deck-rails above the main guns. Finally, a monkey’s tail was the handspike by which such a gun was manoeuvred and aimed. So where did the expression, cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey, come from? The first citation of brass monkey in this context is in fact American from the mid-19th century in Herman Melville’s novel Omoo (1847), where Melville described the weather as hot enough to melt the nose off a brass monkey, the exact text was as follows: “it was ‘ot enough to melt the nose h’off a brass monkey”. Then in Before the Mast (1857), C.A. Abbey wrote of weather that was cold enough “to freeze the tail off a brass monkey.” Both these books were about seafaring and may have prompted the erroneous notion that the expression must have had a nautical origin. Note that these first instances of the expression involved the nose and tail of a monkey. Other citations followed using the ears and legs of brass monkeys, spread across a range of temperatures from hot to freezing. These parts of the monkey’s anatomy may have been preferable because in those days it was not polite to use words like 'balls' either in print or in company. It is more than likely that the original brass monkey must have been just that, a solid brass replica of the animal, perhaps in a set of three, because such ornaments like The Three Wise Monkeys were very popular during the 19th century. Such ornaments, particularly those from the Far East, were not shy in displaying the male genitalia of monkeys. The thought may have occurred to someone, who to this day remains anonymous, that such brass genitalia were extremely cold to the touch in cold weather.