origin of the term ‘brass monkey’ (extremely cold weather)





The term brass monkey is used to refer to extremely cold weather in expressions such as brass-monkey weather.

This usage is derived from the hyperbolic phrase cold enough to freeze the nose (or the tail, the balls, etc.) off a brass monkey (and variants built on different patterns), meaning extremely cold, and of American-English origin.

The earliest instance of the phrase that I have found is from Stray Leaves from a Straggler’s Note Book!, published in the Morning Herald (New York City, N.Y.) of Wednesday 30th May 1838:

Old Knites was as cool as a cucumber, and would have been so independent of the weather, which was cold enough to freeze the nose off a brass monkey.

The second-earliest occurrence that I have found is from Short Patent Sermon. By “Dow, Jr.”, published in the Plattsburgh Republican (Plattsburgh, New York) of Saturday 4th June 1842:

Dear maidens: […] When you love, […] your hearts, hands, feet and flesh are as cold and senseless as the toes of a brass monkey in winter. Such, girls, are your feelings when in love.

The phrase appeared in the Boon’s Lick Times (Fayette, Missouri) of Saturday 25th March 1843:

The Weather. Really, seriously, and soberly, we are becoming very much dissatisfied with the weather: we won’t stand it much longer—we won’t. Yesterday forenoon it snowed; afternoon, sunshine, snow and so forth—and last night cold enough “to freeze a brass monkey’s tail off.”

I have found another early instance of the phrase in a letter that one E. S. Anderson, belonging to “a Springfield party of California Emigrants”, wrote to a certain R. W. Diller on 27th May 1849, published in the Daily Register (Springfield, Illinois) of Monday 25th June 1849:

I slept in our tent, had our camp tools for my cot, and water swimming around me, in the morning my boots full of water, and cold enough to freeze a brass monkey.




The hyperbolic phrase hot enough to melt the ears (or the nose) off a brass monkey and variants have been used to mean extremely hot. The earliest instance that I have found is from The Rasp (Raleigh, North Carolina) of Saturday 24th September 1842, which quoted The Richmond Aurora (Richmond, Virginia) as using the phrase, and likened the editor of that newspaper to a brass monkey—it seems that there was no love lost between those two newspapers:

That ‘new head’ of the Aurora, is one of the last efforts of genius. “Whar did you cum frum!”
What a horrid nasty climate we live in, to be sure: a day or two since it was hot enough to ‘melt the ears off a brass monkey.’
                                          Richmond Aurora.
Shocking intelligence! We regret to learn that the Aurora man has lost his ears.

In the same issue, The Rasp published an editorial condemning “a class, who are styled gentlemen loafers”. On 28th September 1842, The Richmond Aurora reprinted that editorial without giving credit to The Rasp, so that the latter newspaper, on Saturday 8th October 1842, reiterated—and elaborated on—the comparison between the editor of The Richmond Aurora and a brass monkey:

Richmond Aurora.

That “brass monkey” has been hooking our editorial. In the Aurora of the 28th ult. we find an editorial, on loafers, which appeared in the Rasp of the 24th ult. It is true we furnish matter for a good many papers, but all, except the “brass monkey” editor, give us the proper credit. A tap at your ears, occasionally, (but we forget! your ears have been melted off,) will set all right. You now have full leave to scissors [sic] our editorial, whenever your “horrid nasty climate,” should prove too warm for your “mushy” cranium.

The American novelist and short-story writer Herman Melville (1819-91) made a character use the phrase with reference to extreme heat in Omoo: A Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas (New York and London, 1847):

We worked […] until “Nooning Time” came.
The period, so called by the planters, embraced about three hours in the middle of the day; during which it was so excessively hot […] that labor in the sun was out of the question. To use a hyperbolical phrase of Shorty’s, “It was ’ot enough to melt the nose h’off a brass monkey.”

A certain Chaplain McFarland, of the 74th Regiment of Infantry, used a variant in a letter dated 20th July 1864, published in The Xenia Sentinel (Xenia, Ohio) of Tuesday 9th August 1864; he wrote of

a Georgia July sun hot enough to melt grease out of the jaws of a brass monkey.




The term brass monkey has also been used in expressions referring to other notions than extreme cold and extreme heat. It was used with reference to a stench in a letter that Fergus Duers, a Royal Artilleryman, wrote on 16th September 1855, during the siege of Sebastopol—letter published in The Daily News (London, England) of Monday 8th October 1855:

I was down in Sebastopol the other day and saw some awful sights. The English have found some dead houses, and there were many hundred thousand dead, some having lain there for a month or two; they were black and swelled up, and in a decayed state—the smell would have knocked a brass monkey down—they buried them in the ruins of an old house which we had knocked down, and they threw the ruins out of the foundation.

The Louisville Daily Courier (Louisville, Kentucky) of Thursday 22nd April 1858 used the term with reference to ridiculousness: it wrote of

whines and sobs ridiculous enough to make a brass monkey laugh.

On Wednesday 28th June 1865, The Ashland Union (Ashland, Ohio) published a story about an African-American man who, one night, shouldered his banjo and went inside the mansion of the editor of an abolitionist newspaper in order to serenade him:

[The editor] was suddenly awakened by the melodious strains from the aforesaid Banjo. He arose, lighted up his parlor, and proceeded to open the door, when lo and behold, sitting there, solitary and alone, grinning like a brass monkey, was his ebony brother.




The figurative use of brass monkey probably originated in jocular allusions to brass statuettes of monkeys: in cold weather, such metal figures will become very cold to the touch, and, in hot weather, very hot to the touch; and phrases such as ridiculous enough to make a brass monkey laugh can easily be explained by the fact that human characteristics have often been attributed to monkeys.

An allusion to such statuettes appeared in an article about the Insane Asylum of the State of California, published in The New York Herald (New York City, N.Y.) of Monday 13th March 1854:

One [patient] fancies himself a brass monkey, and would not stand erect; another was a monument, always stood upright, and would never move except by compulsion.

The Holmes County Farmer (Millersburg, Ohio) of Thursday 14th July 1864 published a paragraph about a brass statuette of a monkey made in the image of the American statesman Abraham Lincoln (1809-65):

Ingenuity.—An enterprising genius out west has made a brass monkey in the exact image of “Honest Old Abe.” The thing looks as though it would take “the last man and the last dollar” to gratify its ambition, and then call upon the women to fall down and worship it.

Finally, the following is from The Eaton Democrat (Eaton, Ohio) of Thursday 1st June 1882:

The village of Lima, Allen county, Ohio, is about to be tickeled [sic] with an appropriation of $50,000 out of Uncle Samuels pethoric [sic] purse to erect a post office building, etc. The next thing we’ll hear will be a Congressman from some rural town, asking for an appropriation to purchase gold heads for the brass monkeys that adorn the cigar and tobacco establishment of the aforesaid village of the aforesaid Congressman!

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