It’s cold enough to freeze the balls of a brass monkey.
This phrase seems like a good metaphor for very cold weather, but at first sight it’s quite an odd thing to say. Americans, in particular, may wonder why normally staid and polite Englishmen would come up with something so apparently rude.
This damned place is 18 below zero and I go around thanking God that, anatomically and proverbially speaking, I am safe from the awful fate of the monkey. ~ Zelda Fitzgerald. (wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald)
There are also some contractions and derivations of this phrase.
- Brass Monkey’s
- Brass monkey weather
- As cold as a witch’s tit in a brass bra
- Cold enough to freeze the tail of a brass monkey
- Brassed Off ~ meaning ‘pissed off’ (which may or may not have anything to do with any of this)
First of all, let me put your mind at rest, this description of very cold weather has nothing to do with testicles, simian or otherwise. However, like most colloquial English / English expressions etymologists have no clear idea where, when, and how the phrase came to be.
Like many English expressions, the most widely accepted explanation is that ‘cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey’ is nautical / naval in origin. The balls in this case are iron cannon balls, and the brass monkey is a frame to stack them in.
On dry land the neatest way to store cannon balls is to stack them in a pyramid. That doesn’t work so well aboard a heeling, rolling, and pitching, sailing ship. Said cannon balls would soon be rolling all over the deck. So a brass frame was made, the brass monkey, (also known as a shot garland), to hold the cannon balls securely in place. The theory goes that in cold weather the different coefficients of expansion and contraction of brass and iron would have made the cannonballs roll out of the brass frame.
This is most likely a load of balls.
As usual the professional etymologists don’t have a clue, but it’s a very useful and descriptive phrase. So, the next time you experience some cold weather, surprise and shock your friends by saying… ‘brrrrr it’s cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey…’
Next time I’ll try to explain £sd…