Issue 112, page 2

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Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

Updated 01/2006

From Brian Gahagan:

Here's an e-mail I received, and maybe you have too. Just wondering if it's accurate:

While the expression, "It Was Cold Enough to Freeze the Balls Off a Brass Monkey!" is still commonly used by sailors in extremely cold weather, the origin of the phrase has been largely forgotten.  And now, the rest of the story . . .

Virtually every sailing ship in the 1700-1800s had cannons for protection.  Cannons of the times required round iron cannonballs. The Ship's Master usually wanted to store the cannonballs such that they could be of instant use when needed, yet not roll around the gun deck. The solution was to stack them up 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 sixteen, and so on. Four levels would provide a stack of 30 cannonballs. 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 brass plate called, of course a brass monkey, with 16 round indentations, one for each cannonball, in the bottom layer.  Brass was used because the cannonballs wouldn't rust to the brass monkey, but would rust to an iron one. 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 cannonballs 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.

Thus it was, quite literally, "It Was Cold Enough to Freeze the Balls Off a Brass Monkey!"

When we first received this inquiry, we researched the phrase and we found that there were indeed devices on sailing ships known as monkeys, and so the evidence seemed to suggest that this phrase may well have originated on board ships.  However, we received much e-mail in response (which you can find in Sez You columns in issues following this one).  We then performed even more research and discovered that there is simply no evidence that a plate for storing cannonballs was ever called a brass monkey.  We stand behind our research that there were monkeys and powder monkeys onboard ships, but brass monkeys?  No.

Instead, the term brass monkey did, indeed, exist, appearing in the mid-19th century in the U.S.  In fact, most of the references don't even refer to balls; certainly there is no mention of balls in the earliest examples.  However, one theme is clear: it would have been fairly difficult to remove the tail (or, with less polite speakers, the balls) off a brass statue or figurine of a monkey.  And that, folks, is the point.  If it is cold enough to do so, it is pretty darn cold.

Interestingly, the Oxford English Dictionary's earliest reference to brass monkeys and cold weather is from the quarterly journal American Speech (which was, incidentally, founded under the direction of H.L. Mencken and Professor Louise Pound in 1925), and the quotation speaks of tails and not balls.  The earliest record of balls in this sense is from Eric Partridge's slang dictionary of 1937.  Michael Quinion found a reference to brass monkey and temperature from 1847, in Herman Melville's  Omoo: "...'It was 'ot enough to melt the nose h'off a brass monkey.'"  That is the earliest instance we have seen.  Quinion also mentions that the device used to hold cannonballs on board ships was called a garland (also a shot-garland) and was made of wood.

Updated January 2006

From Jack Cook:

Spurious etymologies continue to proliferate.  A new version of "Facts from the 1500s" is circulating with the following passage inserted: 

Sometimes they could obtain pork, which made them feel quite special.  When visitors came over, they would hang up their bacon to show off.  It was a sign of wealth that a man "could bring home the bacon".  They would cut off a little to share with guests and would all sit around and "chew the fat".  

What are the real origins of these phrases?

Ah yes, we remember that e-mail, also known as "Life in the 1500s", quite well.  In fact, we discussed it in Issue 39.  However, as you note, the bit about bacon and fat wasn't in the version we had at the time.  So let's do some further debunking.

Several sources cite the popular 19th century county fair sport of chasing a greased pig.  Whoever caught and managed to hold the pig won it, and so therefore brought home the bacon.  That seems a bit tenuous to us.  Other sources suggest that it is related to something called the Dunmow Flitch, aA flitch (side of bacon). Click to learn more about the Dunmow Flitch. practice first instituted at Great Dunmow, Essex, in England, in the 13th century, or perhaps even earlier.  It is said that the ruling noble would give a side of bacon (a flitch) to any couple who, on Whit Monday (the Monday after Pentecost) traveled to Dunmow church, knelt on the hard stone of the doorway, and swore that for a year and a day they had not fought. This tradition is still in practice today, though it is the town that awards the bacon now.  The problem with this derivation is that bring home the bacon is first recorded (according to the OED) in the 20th century!  Of course, it was probably in use several years (or decades) before it was recorded, but still!

As a side note, we hear that only eight persons brought home the bacon from Dunmow in the period 1244-1772.  Click the image of a side of bacon, above, to visit the Dunmow Flitch site.

Now, what about chewing the fat?  Here, again, several theories exist.  The original phrase may have been chew the rag.  Most etymologists believe that it was originally army slang.  It meant "to discuss, especially to complain".  Why rag?  There are varying thoughts on this.  First, it is said that soldiers would chew a piece of cloth when they ran out of tobacco.  Apparently they would complain about the absence of tobacco at the same time.  Another suggestion is that the rag is one's tongue, and another is that it is related to rag "complain" as in to rag on [someone] and to chew [someone] out.  Whatever the meaning of rag, the phrase chew the rag is first recorded in 1885.  Chew the fat, the more American of the two phrases, dates from about the same time.  It may be based on chew the rag or an entirely different phrase.  Either way, both of these phrases do refer to chewing, and when one chews, his jaws move, much as they do when one is speaking.  That may ultimately be the source of this sense.

From Kelechi Amara:

I heard a story that in medieval times they used cats as weapons by using catapults to spread diseases.  Does catapult come from the word cat?  Could you tell me the history of the word catapult?

It must be Spurious Etymology Week or something.  Yeesh!  No, cats were not hurled in catapults in order to spread disease.  A trebuchet, a type of catapult.  Click to visit a site about catapults.There aren't very many diseases that humans can contract from  cats, anyhow!  Well, there are toxoplasmosis, cat scratch fever/disease, rabies, and rhinovirus (cold), among a few others.  While some of those are life-threatening, transmission usually requires a live cat.  And where does one find a good supply of diseased cat corpses during a siege, anyway?  On the other hand, the story you heard may have been inspired by the medieval practice of catapulting dead bodies (human, not feline) into besieged cities in the hope of spreading disease.  Many historians believe that the Black Death entered Europe by this means in the 14th century.

Catapult came to English from French catapulte, and the French got it (where else?) from the Romans.  Latin catapulta came from a Greek word: katapeltes "catapult", formed from kata "against, down" and pallein "to hurl, cast".  The word is first recorded in English in 1577, but the weapon was around prior to that.  The Romans used catapults after borrowing them from the Greeks, and catapults were also known in China, and the Chinese form was brought back to Europe by the Crusaders in the Middle Ages.

As you will learn if you click on the image above, there are several types of catapult.  The first was the ballista (ultimately from Greek ballein "to throw"), developed by the Greeks.  The Romans later designed the mangonel (from Greek magganon [pronounced "manganon"], "an engine of war"), and the Chinese are believed to have developed the trebuchet (from Old French trabucher "to overturn, overthrow, stumble, fall") as early as 300 BC.  It is the type of catapult used most in medieval warfare.  Trebuchet's usage in English dates to the 13th century, mangonel's to the 12th century, and ballista to the late 16th century..

From Heather Posey:

I just want to know where the word Russia came from and why it is the name of the country formerly known as the USSR.

Don't forget that Russia existed long before the USSR.  The name Russia is thought to derive from the Old Finnish name Rus applied to a people known also as the Varangians.  They were Swedish warriors who entered Russia in the 9th century.  Some of them formed the nucleus of the elite  Varangian Guard which protected the Byzantine emperor.  They established themselves in the area of Kiev and their towns later became the original principalities of Russia.  It is thought that Varangian derives from an Old Swedish word meaning "followers".

Others believe that the word Rus derives from the Finnish name Ruotsi, given to the Swedish men who rowed Viking ships.  Ruotsi is said to mean "rowers".  Ruotsi, one source claims, was also a Finnish name for Sweden.

Keep in mind that Finnish is not an Indo-European language, but belongs instead to the Finno-Ugric group, the largest member of which is Hungarian. Other members of this language group are Estonian and Same (Lappish).

From Patrick Salsbury:

Where did the phrase lame duck come from, and what does it mean? I keep hearing about a "lame duck president" and a "lame duck congress", but why do they use this phrase? What is it supposed to signify?

Well, first, a lame duck president is one who was not re-elected and has to serve the remaining two months of his term after the election. Similarly, a lame duck congress is one where some members will be leaving office after the post-election short session of Congress. Why lame duck? Believe it or not, this term arose in England. It was an 18th-century term, in stock market parlance, for a defaulter. America borrowed it with that meaning by the early 19th century, but it eventually took on the meaning which it has today.  Interestingly, it was reintroduced to Britain from America with that meaning, but it has since devolved to refer to a politician who is incompetent.

All right, you say, but why lame duck? It was apparently originally simply a reference to the ineffectual or powerless nature of the defaulters to whom it was originally applied. That meaning was transferred to politicians (in the U.S.) who had only two months left in office as they would probably be rather ineffectual during that period, as well.


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Last Updated 01/09/06 07:34 PM