It’s Brass Monkeys out there…
I only mention this because it’s been said to me a few times today and it really is brass monkeys out there! Here’s where the term came from as far as we know.
The story goes that cannonballs used to be stored aboard ship in piles, on a brass frame or tray called a ‘monkey’. In very cold weather the brass would contract, spilling the cannonballs: hence very cold weather is ‘cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey’. There are several problems with this story, as follows:
- the term ‘monkey’ is not otherwise recorded as the name for such an object
- the rate of contraction of brass in cold temperatures is unlikely to be fast enough to cause the reputed effect
- the phrase is actually first recorded as ‘freeze the tail off a brass monkey’, which removes any essential connection with balls.
It therefore seems most likely that the phrase is simply a humorous reference to the fact that metal figures will become very cold to the touch in cold weather.
Info pinched with thanks from the Oxford dictionaries.