Brass Monkeys

Michael Quinion TheEditor at WORLDWIDEWORDS.ORG
Tue Sep 24 13:57:57 UTC 2002

James Smith wrote:

> My daughter, studying in England, just forwarded this to me.
> Folk etymology?? Urban legend??  True?? Sounds suspicious, but an
> interesting story nonetheless.

Quite certainly a folk etymology (quite a well-known one, though).
The story is full of logical holes: would sailors pile shot into a
pyramid? (hugely unsafe on a rolling and pitching deck); why a
brass plate? (far too expensive, and unnecessary: they actually
used wooden frames with holes in, called garlands, fixed to the
sides of the ship); was the plate and pile together actually called
a monkey? (no evidence on record); would cold weather really cause
such shrinkage as to cause balls to fall off? (highly improbable,
as all the balls would reduce in size equally and the differential
movement between the brass plate and the iron balls would be only a
small fraction of a millimetre).

Michael Quinion
Editor, World Wide Words
E-mail: <TheEditor at>
Web: <>

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