“Freezing the Balls Off the Brass Monkey,” a Navy Phrase about Cannon BallsFiction!



Summary of eRumor:

This piece of alleged history explains that in the olden days of sailing ships, cannon balls were stacked on the decks on brass plates called “monkeys.”  The plates had indentions in them that held the balls on the bottoms of the stacks.  Brass, however, expands and contracts with the temperature and if it got cold enough, the cannon balls could fall…giving real foundation to the phrase “cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey!”

The Truth:

According to the United States Navy Historical Center, this is a legend of the sea without historical justification.  The center has researched this because of the questions it gets and says the term “brass monkey” and a vulgar reference to the effect of cold on the monkey’s extremities, appears to have originated in the book “Before the Mast” by C.A. Abbey.  It was said that it was so cold that it would “freeze the tail off a brass monkey.”   The Navy says there is no evidence that the phrase had anything to do with ships or ships with cannon balls.

A real example of the eRumor as it has appeared on the Internet:

 Subject: brass monkey

 In the heyday of sailing ships, all war ships and many freighters
 carried iron cannons. Those cannon fired round iron cannon balls. It was
 necessary to keep a good supply near the cannon. But how to prevent them
 from rolling about the deck?
 The best storage method devised was a square based pyramid with one
 ball on top, resting on four resting on nine which rested on sixteen.
 Thus, a supply of thirty 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
 called a “Monkey” with sixteen round indentations. 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 “Brass Monkeys.”
 Few landlubbers realize that brass contracts much more and much
 faster 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, you thought that was a dirty expression, didn’t you?)
 You must send this fabulous bit of historical knowledge to at least
 ten unsuspecting friends (or enemies) within thirteen and one half
 seconds. If you don’t, your floppy is going to fall off your hard drive and
 kill your mouse. Don’t send it back to me. I’ve already seen it.