Folk etymologies

Michael Quinion TheEditor at WORLDWIDEWORDS.ORG
Wed Jun 2 15:15:54 UTC 2004

A subscriber recently queried my dismissal of the much-repeated story
that the phrase "cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey"
came from the brass frames on Royal Navy sailing ships on which the
pyramids of iron shot were placed. He said, in effect, that I must be
wrong, because he recently saw such a frame in a museum in Hong Kong.

As an article about the expression is included in my book on popular
etymology that is to be published by Penguin in the UK on 1 July, I
was intrigued and a little concerned. So I contacted the museum. A
helpful curator has today e-mailed me a photograph of the display.
Beside a cannon is a pile of shot in what indeed looks like a brass
frame. However, she confirms that it's actually made of stained wood,
and was constructed by the museum's designer three years ago to keep
the shot in place on the exhibit.

That was a near-run thing. Now I must sort out this chap who swears
that he, his father and his grandfather have all actually used "POSH"
as an insider's codeword to persuade pursers to give them cabins on
the cooler sides of ships ...

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

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