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Wednesday, February 21, 2018

How Cold Is It?

     Nunavut is the newest, largest, and northernmost territory of Canada. It was separated officially from the Northwest Territories on April 1, 1999, via the Nunavut Act and the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement Act, though the boundaries had been contemplatively drawn in 1993. The creation of Nunavut resulted in the first major change to Canada's political map since the incorporation of the province of Newfoundland and Labrador in 1949. And, up there in Bear Lake, Nunavut in Canada it's cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey as they used to say. Either way you measure, Celsius or Fahrenheit, it's 40 below. 
     Sailing ships had to have cannon for protection and the cannonballs had to ready for instant use so the story goes that cannonballs used to be stored aboard ship in piles on a brass frame or tray called a 'monkey'. 
     The cannonballs were stacked 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. The 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 a brass monkey with a round indentation for each cannonball in the bottom layer. Brass was used because the cannonballs wouldn’t rust to the brass monkey. 
     In very cold weather brass contracts faster than iron and as it got cold and 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, “cold enough to freeze the balls off a “brass monkey.” 

     A nice explanation, but it's not true. The Oxford English Dictionary doesn't even record a usage of “brass monkey” like this. References to “brass monkeys” started appearing in print in the mid-1800s and cannonballs weren't mentioned. It was cold enough to freeze the ears off a brass monkey or the tail off a brass monkey or the nose off a brass monkey. On hot days it was hot enough to scald the throat of a brass monkey or singe the hair off a brass monkey. 
     Besides, warships didn’t store cannonballs, or round shot as it was known, on deck all the time. Space was a precious commodity and decks were kept as clear as possible in order to allow room for sailors to perform all the tasks necessary for ordinary ship’s functions. Also, storing cannonballs on deck presented a hazard...they might break free in high seas and start rolling around deck, possibly even going over the side. Cannonballs were only brought on deck when action was a possibility. 
     Gunners were also persnickety about their cannonballs. Gun crews kept the balls polished to remove imperfections in the belief that smooth shot would fly truer. And, like all military men everywhere, rust is a bad thing. Back in my day in the Marine Corps, rifles were stored in a gun rack in the squad bay and one day the Platoon Sergeant walked by and started picking out rifles to inspect. He found a spec of rust on one, pulled out his notebook and checked the serial number to see who it belonged. It wasn't mine; I carried a Colt 1911 A1 Government Model .45 caliber pistol. The rusty rifle belonged to one of the squad leaders who was summoned and in a few choice words instructed to clean his rifle. Rust is an enemy that won't be tolerated. 
     Nobody really knows where the term “freeze the balls off a brass monkey” comes from, but it's probably another version of brass monkeys having their nose or ears or tails frozen off. Now you know.

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