Cold Enough to freeze the balls off . . .
Some references say that the brass triangles that supported stacks of iron cannon-balls on sailing ships were called monkeys and that in cold weather the metal contracted, causing the balls to fall off. The derivation of this phrase is difficult enough to determine without such tosh, so let's get that oft-repeated story out of the way first:
Another explanation that is given for this phrase is that it originated with the three wise monkeys. The original of these was a set of carved wooden monkeys in the Sacred Stable at Nikko in Japan. In 1896, Robert Hope introduced their meaning to the West in his The Temples & Shrines of Nikko:
If you've heard the phrase 'hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil' you are probably familiar with the brass version of these monkey figures, which have used as paperweights since at least the early 20th century. Their introduction to English-speaking countries, and knowledge of the three wise monkeys, come too late for the figures to have been the direct source of this phrase.
Now, back to the real origin of 'cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey'. Anyone looking for the origin of this is likely to be put off the scent by the 'balls' in the phrase. Of course, the way we now understand the phrase is that it is cold enough to freeze one's testicles off (ladies needn't feel left out, they have the alternative 'as cold as a witch's tit in a brass bra'). Once we realize that the phrase is seen in print many times in various forms well before any variant that mentions balls, it becomes clear that trying to explain what balls were being referred to is something of a fool's errand. Were the two explanations above not counted out already we could probably discount them on this count too. There may have been some journalistic coyness about using the current version of the phrase - it is, after all, commonly understood to refer to testicles. That's view is backed up by the fact that there are almost no citations of the balls variant in any US newspaper, even up until the present day. There's no evidence to prove that that variant existed in the 19th century. 'Cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey' appears to have originated in the USA in the first part of the 20th century and is clearly based of earlier variants. The earliest citation of that precise phrase that I can find is from as late as 1979 in the biography of Tristan Jones - A Wayward Sailor:
There were earlier balls version - Bluestones' The Private World of Cully Powers, 1960 has: "Man, I'm so hungry I could eat the balls off a brass monkey". There's little doubt that the phrase was circulating almost the general public before WWII - some years before it appears in print.
In Arthur Mizener's biography of F. Scott Fitzgerald The Far Side of Paradise, he includes part of a letter written by Fitzgerald's wife Zelda in 1921:
The risqué nature of Zelda's life and writing style suggests that she wasn't referring to the monkey's nose, tail or ears.
Later, but still before WWII, Eric Partridge, in A Dictionary of Catchphrases, repeats this report:
At this point it is probably worth looking at those early citations of the phrase. Interestingly, many early versions refer to heat rather than cold and the first known version of the phrase mentions neither balls nor cold. That is found in Herman Melville's novel Omoo, 1847:
Other printed mentions of brass monkey that followed a little later in the 19th century are:
There are many other hot/cold variants of the phrase in print from the 19th century:
All of these combine to suggest that the brass monkey in question wasn't a particular beast or object but merely a synonym for a generalized inanimate object. If that's so then, what was a brass monkey? It may be a reference to the three wise monkeys that pre-dates the 1896 citation above - although that would seem unlikely given the gap in the dates.
The young boys who helped with the loading of cannons on naval ships were called powder monkeys. Other seafaring monkey business relates to ancient forms of cannon called a brass monkeys, or drakes, or dogs. These were recorded in an inventory published in 1650 - The articles of the rendition of Edenburgh-Castle to the Lord Generall Cromwel:
Brass drakes/monkeys were referred to in J. Heath's Flagellum, 1663: "Twenty-eight Brass Drakes called Monkeys" and in The Taking of St. Esprit in Harlech, 1627: "Two drakes upon the half deck, being brass, of sacker bore".
There's also a nautical reference from 1822 for the monkey tail which appears in the earliest known version of the phrase. This was a lever that was used to aim a cannon.
It might sound like the work of CANOE (the Committee to Ascribe a Naval Origin to Everything) but, given these citations and the large percentage of references to brass monkeys in nautical contexts, it seems likely that the inanimate object in question was in fact a naval cannon. The 'balls' are a recent appendage.