Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Brass - Freezing Squalls and Monkey Balls

Brass knockers - there's a joke in there somewhere.
(photo by Natesh Ramasamy)


Noun & adjective.
[Old English bræs = Old Frisian bres, Middle Low German bras metal, of unknown origin.]

1(a) noun. Originally, any allow of copper with tin or zinc or occasionally other metals.
Now, a yellow allow of copper and zinc only (compare with bronze noun). OE

1(b) noun. Brass taken as a type of hardness or insensitivity; impudence, effrontery, nerve. LME

2(a) noun. A brass object; such objects collectively, brassware;
specifically wind instruments of brass, the section of an orchestra or band comprising of these. LME

2(b) noun. A monumental or sepulchral tablet of brass, bearing figures, inscriptions, etc.,
laid in the floor or set into the wall of a church. M16

2(c) noun. A bearing or block for a shaft. M16

2(d) noun. In full horse-brass. A brass ornament worn by a draught horse. E20

2(e) noun. A brass block or die used to impress a design, etc. on a book-cover. M20

3 noun. Originally, copper or bronze coin. Now (colloquially), money generally, cash. LME

4 noun. High-ranking officers in the armed forces (compare with brass hat);
generally leaders, bosses. Also top brass. slang (originally US). L19

5 noun. elliptically = brass nail. slang. M20

B attributively or as adjective. (Made of) brass, brazen. LME

While it might not carry the grand opulence and mystery of, say, gold, brass does indeed have an important place in human history and therefore is the basis of many colourful and curious idioms. A high-ranking officer, for example, is a brass hat (in reference to the gold braid on his cap), and such officers generally are the top brass. At the other end of the social spectrum is the brass nail, rhyming slang for tail, meaning a prostitute. A brass farthing means the absolute least possible, usually in a negative context such as "That boy hasn't done a brass farthing!", and getting down to brass tacks means to get down to the nitty-gritty details of something.

Perhaps the most interesting (and vivid) expression, however, was one I first heard from my Scottish mother-in-law: "It's so cold it'd freeze the balls off a brass monkey!" Few idioms are either as intriguing or research-worthy. Who is (or was) this brass-balled monkey, and why were his globulars so sensitive to the cold? As my mother-in-law didn't know the origin, an investigation was quickly afoot.

Hear no evil, See no evil, Speak no evil, Freeze the balls off a brass monkey
A trio of brass monkeys - and not a ball in sight
(photo by Chris Jones)
My research quickly lead me to to a naval explanation. Specifically, a ship's cannonballs were stacked into a pyramid shape on brass plates called monkeys. When the weather was really cold, it would cause the brass plate to contract, and therefore all of the cannonballs would roll off it; therefore, it was literally cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey. Wonderful! The story has history, it has adventure, and it is absolutely genitalia-free and therefore appropriate mother-in-law material. Unfortunately, it's also complete rubbish.The story quite clearly makes very little sense - after all, who would stack cannonballs in a pyramid on a ship's deck? The health and safety implications on the high seas are beyond thinking about. Also, there is no evidence that any such plate existed or was ever called a monkey. This leads us uncomfortably back to a literal brass monkey and his balls.

So what's the real origin? Rather unsatisfactorily, no one knows. Earlier incarnations of the saying were cleaner, such as "cold enough to freeze the tail off a brass monkey." A common souvenir in times past was a trio of brass monkeys - each covering a separate body part, be it the ears, eyes and mouth (interpreted as hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil). It's possible that, without a specific reason, at some point the observation was made that it was cold enough to freeze one of these monkey's tails off. However, some sets also had a fourth monkey, one that was covering its genitals. Therefore, someone familiar with the saying may have seen such a ball-covering monkey and assumed it had its balls frozen off. However, there is some good news: thanks to something called the oligodynamic effect, brass naturally disinfects itself. Therefore, should you find the eponymous monkey's balls and wish to return them, you can handle them safe in the knowledge that at least they're sterile.

Have you heard the expression "to freeze the balls off a brass monkey"?

Are there any brassy expressions in your language?

Do please leave your nuttiest comments below.


  1. I looked into 'cold enough to freeze the tail off a brass monkey' a while back.
    I found the cannonball story too.
    I also found that although 3 was the usual number of monkeys in the ''see no evil, etc." set, some sets added a fourth monkey, whose hands covered the genitals, and many believe that the expression comes from this.

    Picture of monkey set

    I also subscribe to World Wide Words, and he did a post about the expression a while back.

    World Wide Words - Brass monkey weather

    1. Aww. Your brass monkeys are way cuter than mine! And you have the fourth.

    2. Aww, I was waiting for you to say what the fourth one was for!! :)
      See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil..... and....?!

    3. I just can't think what that might be, Jingles - my mind is all a-flutter : o )