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18 November, 2014


The current, unexpected and premature blast of winter has been the topic of conversation in my world for the last couple of days.  One rather crass but comical expression is not only on the tips of many tongues, but I have seen it a least a dozen times on Facebook in the past 24 hours.  In all honestly, I cannot think of any other 12 words in the English language that better describe how cold it is.

It is often stated that the phrase "It is cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey" originated from the use of a brass tray, called a "monkey", to hold cannonballs on warships in the 16th to 18th centuries. Supposedly, in very cold temperatures the "monkey" would contract, causing the balls to fall off. However, nearly all historians and etymologists consider this story to be an urban legend. Interestingly, this story has been discredited by the U.S. Department of the Navy, etymologist Michael Quinion, and the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).

They give five main reasons:
1) The OED does not record the term "monkey" or "brass monkey" being used in this way. The purported method of storage of cannonballs ("round shot") is simply false.

2) Shot was not stored on deck continuously on the off-chance that the ship might go into battle. In fact, decks were kept as clear as possible. Furthermore, such a method of storage would result in shot rolling around on deck and causing a hazard in high seas. 

3) Shot was stored on the gun or spar decks, in shot racks -- longitudinal wooden planks with holes bored into them, known as shot garlands in the Royal Navy, into which round shot were inserted for ready use by the gun crew.

4) Shot was not left exposed to the elements where it could rust. Such rust could lead to the ball not flying true or jamming in the barrel and exploding the gun. In fact, gunners would attempt to remove as many imperfections as possible from the surfaces of balls.

5) The physics does not stand up to scrutiny. The contraction of both balls and plate over the range of temperatures involved would not be particularly large. The effect claimed possibly could be reproduced under laboratory conditions with objects engineered to a high precision for this purpose, but it is unlikely it would ever have occurred in real life aboard a warship.

So, there goes another myth.  More likely the reference is almost certainly 16th to 18th century humour, just like it is used today to emphasize how cold it is.

Just how cold has it been in your area folks...?

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