The English language has a lot to answer for. It’s a polyglot of corrupted Latin, Anglosaxon, Germanic, Celtic, Frankish, Danish – with input from Indian languages and other sources. It’s illogical, contradictory and, in some cases, bloody odd. Britain has been invaded and influenced by celtic tribes, Jutes, Danes, Normans and Romans.
Usage and meaning change with time, misunderstanding, common usage, dialectic differences and many other factors.
Language is mutable and the study of it infinitely fascinating.
Any non-native speaker has their work cut out learning the nuances (Latin – origin ‘nubes’ meaning cloud’, to Middle French – nue/nuer to make shades of colour), dialects (also Latin – Middle French) and phrases or sayings that many people use but don’t understand.
Etymology (/ˌɛtɪˈmɒlədʒi/) is the study of the history of words. By extension, the phrase “the etymology of [a word]” means the origin of a particular word. For place names, there is a specific term, toponymy.
Origin of Etymology
‘late Middle English: from Old French ethimologie, via Latin from Greek etumologia, from etumologos ‘student of etymology’, from etumon, neuter singular of etumos ‘true’. –
Don’t get this mixed up with ENTOMOLOGY – which is a branch of zoology studying insects.
Cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey – meaning – it’s really cold (in case you hadn’t realised)
Origin – The story goes cannon balls on ships used to be stored in a brass tray called Brass Monkey – and in very cold conditions it would contract and spill the cannon balls out.
- The OED does not record the term monkey or brass monkey being used in this way
- Cannonballs weren’t stored on deck on the off-chance there would be battle (they’d roll around everywhere in rough weather. Shot was stored in the gun spars or shot garlands into which round shot was inserted ready for the gun crew to use).
- Shot would not be left to the elements, where it could rust, potentially causing explosions of the cannon when fired.
Being the sort of person I am I looked up how cold it would have to be –
‘The coefficient of expansion of brass is 0.000019; that of iron is 0.000012. If the base of the stack were one metre long, the drop in temperature needed to make the ‘monkey’ shrink relative to the balls by just one millimetre, would be around 100 degrees Celsius.’
At which point cannon balls rolling around is probably the least of your worries.
However, a ‘monkey’ was a gun or cannon dating from the 17th century and the Monkey tail was a lever used for aiming it [Source: The Oxford English Dictionary. New York: Oxford University Press, 1933.]
And the sailor who collected the powder for the cannon was a ‘Powder Monkey’ (not a nice job, don’t get a spark in that area)
It may also have referred to the three brass balls that were a pawnbroker’s sign.
Early usage in the 19th century reference other parts of the ‘monkey’ – cold enough to freeze the tail, nose, whiskers, toes etc. off and possibly referred to brass monkey statues from China which were popular imports. The ‘balls’ freezing is a variant – because humans will be humans. That part of the anatomy did not appear in print until the 1930s. It’s possible the naval origin is a sanitised origin
Author Herman Melville (Moby Dick), uses the phrase in Omoo.