Don't Spank The Brass Monkey

From a dedicated reader...

It was necessary to keep a good supply of cannon balls near the
cannon on old war ships. But how to prevent them from rolling about
the deck was the problem. The best storage method devised was to
stack them as a square based pyramid, with one ball on top, resting
on four, resting on nine, which rested on sixteen. Thus, a supply of
30 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 with 16 round indentations, called a Monkey. But if this
plate were 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 vulgar expression, didn't
you? You must send this fabulous bit of historical knowledge to at
least a few & unsuspecting friends.


Roadkill said...


You've obviously never been at sea. Ships -- particularly the small displacement wooden ships of the smoothbore-cannon era -- pitched and rolled extensively. Even today, it is not uncommon for small ships (5,000 GWT and less) to roll up to 40 degrees or more in heavy seas. Anything not lashed down or otherwise "secured for sea" flies all over the decks, like food from tables and sailors from racks (bunks). I can assure you that heavy round balls piled up in a pyramid would be all over the place in 10 degree seas, doing as much (if not more) damage as if they were shot at the ship.

The fact is, round shot ammunition was stored in racks along bulkheads (walls) in the era of sail, much like modern projectiles are stored on modern ships.

While brass monkey plates were never used on ships, they may have been used ashore for ceremonial or decorative purposes only. Maybe the balls rolled harmlessly onto the grass when it got cold.

So keep looking for the origins of that expression. Here's another one I think would be interesting to decypher: "Colder than a witch's tit."

Sunny B said...


My DNA must contain some traces of salt from the time my Dad spent on an aircraft carrier in the PAcific in WWII. I also tour the USS Constitution in Boston a few years back. I don't remember seeing any brass monkeys, but I did see lots of cannons. I was a very interesting tour on a stately national treasure.

The tour guide told us he joined the Navy to see the world. He was from Boston and could see his house from the ship.

Being that this site specializes in things that lean in a political direction, we don't worry about double checking the facts. Knowing the person who submitted the brass monkey business, he was more interested in getting a cheap chuckle than presenting the facts.