One of the mysteries of the English language finally explained.
What is the origin of the term 'brass monkey'?
The story goes that cannonballs used to be stored aboard ship in piles, on a brass frame or tray called a 'monkey'. In very cold weather the brass would contract, spilling the cannonballs: hence very cold weather is 'cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey'. There are several problems with this story, as follows:
- the term 'monkey' is not otherwise recorded as the name for such an object
- the rate of contraction of brass in cold temperatures is unlikely to be fast enough to cause the reputed effect
- the phrase is actually first recorded as 'freeze the tail off a brass monkey', which removes any essential connection with balls.
It therefore seems most likely that the phrase is simply a humorous reference to the fact that metal figures will become very cold to the touch in cold weather.
Take a look at: The origin of the word 'penguin'.
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