It is very cold today and when I went out to brave the elements to get my morning paper, I heard somebody say ” it is cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey” A phrase I knew well but the thought occurred… why brass and why the poor monkey?
It appears that old nautical records provide the answer. The guns on 18th-century men-of-war ships needed gun- powder to fire them, and this was stored in a different part of the ship for safety reasons. Young boys, usually orphans, who were small enough to slip through tight spaces, carried this powder along tiny passages and galleys. Because of their agility the lads became known as powder monkeys and by association the brass trays used to hold the cannonballs became known as the brass monkeys. These trays had 16 cannonball- sized indentations that would form the base of a cannonball pyramid. Brass was used because the balls would not stick to or rust on brass as they did with iron, but the drawback was that brass contracts much faster in cold weather than iron. This meant that on severely cold days the indentations holding the lower level of cannonballs would contract, spilling the pyramid over the deck, hence cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey.