The navy's here

Today one of the writers in our care came up with "unchartered territory". A routine malapropism for "uncharted", of course, but it left me musing on how many of our phrases have their roots in the Royal Navy.

"Uncharted" clearly means "off the map" but one of my favourites is rather more obscure: "cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey". The good news is, it isn't rude and has nothing to do with chilled simian genetalia.

Quite simply, in the days of fighting sail a small number of cannonballs were often kept on deck for immediate use. They were stored in a brass frame known as a monkey (probably because the boys who brought gunpowder from the magazine were known as powder monkeys). In exceptionally cold weather the brass could contract enough to dislodge the iron balls.

Another balls-related phrase you can use in front of granny is (for an engine) "running balls out".

Steam engines need to be governed to stop them revving too fast and exploding. The governor incorporates a pair of heavy balls on pivoted arms that are thrown outwards by centrifugal force – so when the engine is working flat out it is literally running "balls out".


Terry said...

I hope your magazines are better researched than your blog - your "brass monkey" story is, to use an appropriate expression, balls. Michael Quinion thoroughly debunked the cannonballs story here.

JD (The Engine Room) said...

I'm afraid I'm going to speak in Apus' defence here. I've read Michael Quinion's piece, and it's an argument I've come across before, albeit by Philip Holberton - it makes some good logical points, but is far from conclusive.

I'm also not sure about the suggestion that the phrase is connected to 'three wise monkeys' - any evidence for this? Other theories I've come across include a reference to the sign outside a pawnbroker's shop - again, I've seen no evidence for this.

Nigel Rees' 'A Word in Your Shell-Like' (Collins) summarises the arguments on all sides quite well and fails to reach a conclusion, or to conclusively debunk the cannonballs story. So I'm also going to sit on the fence here.

Incidentally, I think the 'it's an urban legend' meme is almost as pervasive as the folk etymology meme, and I tend to be a bit distrustful of either.

Terry said...

I'd say the simplest explanation is that it's just a colourful and slightly risque metaphore ... ornaments in the form of brass monkeys must have been common in Victorian times,and since brass is hard, why then, if it's so cold even a brass monkey's balls would drop off, cold it must be ...

garicgymro said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
garicgymro said...

I'm gonna go with Terry Collmann here, as is the generally well-researched and reliable snopes (

The it's-an-urban-legend meme does replicate well, parasitising the did-you-know meme as it does. But in this case it seems to me that the evidence is in favour of it, particularly if one bears in mind the existence of phrases like "hot enough to singe the hairs of a brass monkey" and so on.

Of course, it could all have started out with cannonballs before being rapidly taken as something more vivid by non-sailors. But the whole idea of storing cannonballs in that way just seems so impractical!