One theory about the origin of a frigid phrase

Letter from Bruce Gillis

Language – May 2002 – Colorado Central Magazine –


Responding to your plea for cold stories for next winter, I submit the following:

Subject: Old Navy stuff

In the heyday of the sailing ship, every ship had to have cannon for protection. Cannon of the times required round iron cannon balls.

The master wanted to store the cannon balls such that they could be of instant use when needed, yet not roll around the gun deck. The solution was to stack them in a square-based pyramid next to the cannon. The top level of the stack had one ball, the next level down had four, the next had nine, the next had 16, and so on. Four levels made a stack of 30 cannon balls.

The only real problem was how to keep the bottom level from sliding out from under the weight of the higher levels. To do this, they devised a small plate (called a “monkey”) with one rounded indentation for each cannon ball in the bottom layer. When iron was used to make this plate (“monkey”), the cannon balls would rust to the plate. As a result, these plates were made of brass to prevent this problem — thus the name “brass monkey.”

When temperature falls, brass contracts in size faster than iron. As it got cold on the gun decks, the indentations in the brass monkey would get smaller than the iron cannon balls they were holding. If the temperature got cold enough, the bottom layer would pop out of the indentations spilling the entire pyramid over the deck.


And all this time some of you thought we were talking dirty.

And a quick irrelevant “Blond” joke. She looked into the cereal box of Cheerios, and said in surprise: “Look, doughnut seed.”

Enough for now, Hang in there, I’m pulling for you; we’re all in this together.

Bruce Gillis