Sometimes I’m reading a book and come across a phrase or piece of information that is just begging for further investigation and that leads to even more new questions and discoveries. This time I got dragged into the mysterious world of brass monkeys, monkey wrenches, monkey puzzle trees and a whole barrel-load of monkeys. Not to mention unearthing a Dutch disco hit called The Monkey Puzzle Tree. Join me in a voyage of discovery to find tales of dubious word origins and other nautical nonsense.

Brass monkey weather?
A barrel of monkeys

On this occasion, I was happily reading William Boyd’s Brazzaville Beach when I was struck by the phrase brass monkeys, then one thing lead to another. Of course, I have heard the expression before, but the thing that jarred with me was that it doesn’t seem to be the full expression.


Freezing the balls off a brass monkey – what does it mean?

It wasn’t an expression I grew up with so when I first heard it, many years ago, I was mystified. “Brass monkey weather!” exclaimed my husband. That definitely needed some explanation. The full expression, “it’s cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey”, according to my husband, it goes back to the time of warfare with cannons when the cannonballs were stored in piles on metal plates. If the weather was really cold, the metal contracted so much that the cannonballs could be catapulted off.  To be honest, this sounds a little far-fetched to me. Cannonballs were made of pretty heavy metal and I can’t imagine a pile of them could be catapulted anywhere by the force anything less than a direct hit by another cannonball. Has Mythbusters investigated this?

Boringly enough, this origin of the phrase can be consigned to the annals of urban legend, according to Wikipedia and the fascinating website World Wide Words (if you’re a fan of word origins, don’t visit it if you don’t want to lose days of your life reading deep into the night). According to its author, Michael Quinion, the monkeys concerned are supposedly small brass souvenirs of the Three Wise Monkeys, See No Evil, Hear No Evil and Speak No Evil, who cover their eyes, ears and mouth respectively with their paws. Early versions also had a monkey covering his genitals; not sure what his name would have been! If you ask me, this is also an entirely imaginary etymological theory. Why would anyone think of the Three Wise Monkeys (or in this case Four Wise Monkeys) in connection with the weather? Unless there was a famous shipment of souvenirs from China and Japan that was ruined by various parts of their anatomy falling off when the weather turned chilly, or they melted in the tropical heat, but I’m pretty sure it doesn’t usually get hot enough to melt brass even in the tropics.

Brass monkeys
Freezing the balls off the three wise monkeys?

Where do the Three Wise Monkeys come from?

Everything might be made in China nowadays, but it’s pretty certain that the three monkeys (sanbikizaru) originally came from Japan because they depict a Japanese pun. As the word for ‘monkey’ (saru or zaru) sounds the same as the negative verb ending zaru *, the image of the three monkeys is a play on the words mizaru, kikazaru, iwazaru (‘see nothing, hear nothing, say nothing’). To take the pun even further, the first word, mizaru (‘see nothing’) can also mean ‘three monkeys’. In an article in the Guardian, G.H. Healey of Sheffield University’s School of East Asian Studies suggests it is comparable to illustrating the English words ‘catastrophic, catagmatic, catalytic’ with three cats.

* N.B. Apparently the Japanese language has negative verb endings!

Brass monkeys and cannonballs

Just like the cannonballs, the nautical explanation doesn’t stack up, either. The Royal Navy, who should know what they’re talking about even if they don’t have very many ships left, say that cannonballs on ships were stored in something like one of those preformed fruit boxes they use for apples, with depressions for the cannonballs. The racks were called shot garlands; wooden planks with holes to stop the cannonballs from rolling around deck in rough weather. Not to mention the fact that keeping cannonballs on deck would have caused them to rust, so they were stored below decks until required. Were they stored stacked up in pyramids under cover, then? No, apparently not, though they might have been kept like that on land. Stacking cannonballs just doesn’t make sense at sea.

According to an article on,  there could be a nautical connection after all. Not the powder monkeys, the boys who helped load the cannons on board, but the cannons themselves. The first recorded mention is in an inventory published in 1650 where ‘Short Brasse Munkeys alias Dogs’ are listed in The articles of the rendition of Edenburgh-Castle to the Lord Generall Cromwel (they didn’t have online spelling checkers back then). More etymological detective work referred to in this article cross-references drakes/monkeys in a 1663 book and an earlier reference in 1627 to “Two drakes upon the half deck, being brass, of sacker bore” (whatever that may mean).

Monkey wrenches

It seems that there were lots of bits and bobs on a sailing ship that were called ‘monkey’ something or other. It suddenly occurred to me that my husband always talks about a monkey wrench. When I looked it up, I found that it is also supposed to have a nautical connection; the apocryphal CANOE (Committee to Ascribe a Naval Origin to Everything)  would be proud!. The word monkey was used as a modifier “denoting a small light structure or piece of equipment contrived to suit an immediate purpose: a monkey foresail, a monkey bridge”.

Like brass monkeys, the origin of the monkey wrench name is shrouded in mystery and has its very own dubious tale of monkey business. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the story went that the inventor of the monkey wrench was Charles Moncky who sold his patent for $2,000, investing his money in  a house in Williamsburg, Kings County, NY. Even though it had already been debunked by historical and patent research in the late 19th century, the story stuck. Source: One of the links in this article has the sort of discussion only a museum curator and a collector could have about the origins of monkey wrenches, but it does mention that the name monkey in this case could simply have come from the rounded shape of the head and open jaws of an early wrench, making it look rather like a monkey’s head, seen from the side. I rather like this idea. Not much help with brass monkeys, mind you.

Some of these may be monkey wrenches. Some of them look a bit like monkeys.

For a summary of the discussion about brass monkeys, I refer you to Wordwizard.

Cooper’s Stout advert for the literalists

If you like your explanations literal, try the story of Scott of the Antarctic and the Brass Monkey, a radio advertising campaign for Cooper’s Stout.

Also in the literalist camp is this image of a monkey sitting atop some cannonballs for Brass Monkey Bitter, but I think you’ll agree that this is definitely using the monkey idea of popular imagination as a springboard for an advertising campaign and not the origin of the phrase.  Seen on:

Monkey puzzle trees

Even the monkey puzzle tree (Araucaria araucana) has a nautical connection, though not in its naming; its straight trunk was prized for making masts. There is a tale behind its common name, however. It was brought back from Chile in 1795 by Archibald Menzies, the naval surgeon aboard the Discovery (after Captain Cook had moved on). When he was served the seeds for dessert at a dinner hosted by the Governor of Chile, he smuggled some out and planted them in frames on deck on the voyage home. He took the saplings to Kew Gardens where one specimen grew for almost 100 years. They became popular trees in Victorian and Edwardian gardens after plant hunter William Lobb brought back more seeds in 1842, shooting the cones out of the trees to get hold of them. Now they are on the endangered list in the wild (not, I hasten to add, because they have all been shot but because of deforestation and other human skulduggery). The story goes that a visitor to a garden in Cornwall commented that the hard prickly leaves and the way the tree grew “would be a puzzle for a monkey”. And so it became known as the monkey puzzler and later the monkey puzzle tree. To be honest, the puzzling part is how it became to be associated monkeys as there are none in South America, not to mention how the monkey puzzle name became so popular. It’s even connected to monkeys in other languages: in French it is called désespoir des singes, monkey’s desperation and in Dutch one of its common names is similar, apeverdriet, monkey sadness – presumably because they can’t climb the tree’s prickly branches easily. It is also known as apenpuzzel (monkey puzzle, from the English) or apentreiter (monkey teaser). The most common name, however, is slangenden (snake pine) because the branches resemble snakeskin or else kandelaarden (candelabra pine) because of the shape of the young tree. Older trees lose their lower branches so they end their days looking more like palms than pines.
Sources: +

Recently I have been cycling around taking photos of artwork on the front of local houses (for a future blog post) and it struck me how many fully-grown monkey puzzle trees there are in this area. The trees are definitely not in the grounds of houses that were there in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, so there must have been a more recent fashion for them here, probably between the 1950s and the 1970s. It’s a little difficult to tell, however, as they can apparently live to the ripe old age of over 1,000 years old, if one newspaper article is to be believed; I’m pretty sure that is an exaggeration. Apparently they were originally sold for 100 guilders per metre, making them quite a status symbol, so it’s not surprising some of the largest examples are at stately homes.  However, the majority are in tiny front gardens, planted as solitary trees bang smack in the centre of a tiny lawn. They grow slowly, but as they grow to a considerable height, they definitely earn their title of living fossil. I can’t say they are one of my favourite trees and although the larger ones are rather impressive, I prefer a more graceful tree myself.

I don’t have my own photo of a monkey puzzle tree because I’d have to go outside to walk 10 metres up the road and it’s brass monkey weather, but I did discover a website by a Dutch artist called Marc Volger who is often involved in collaborative art. He seems to have a thing about collections and trees and on his blog he started a gallery of monkey puzzle trees, so I’ll share one of his Facebook photos. I love his Facebook page because he shares random photos of the sort of things I take photos of and then writes little background stories about them. He has a new follower; ironic, because his surname means follower!

Slangenboom, apenverdriet, apenpuzzel
Monkey puzzle tree in Wijchen

I tell a lie, I do have my own photo of a local monkey puzzle tree, discovered as I was adding the photos to this blog post. It pays to poke around the archives! I wonder if they realised it was going to grow so big.

Dutch disco – The Monkey Puzzle Tree

Just when I thought I had found the last scrap of information on monkey puzzle trees in the Netherlands, what should I come across but a 1982 song called The Monkey Puzzle Tree by a Dutch singer known as Erna Jones, or later May Jones (real name Erna Jansen) from Uden, a small town in Noord-Brabant. I had never heard it before, which is hardly surprising as it’s pretty dire, but in the interests of leaving no stone unturned, I feel compelled to include it. Enjoy!

Do join me for some more monkey business soon. If you have a heart-wrenching tale to tell, if you’ve had a close encounter with a monkey or, for that matter, a monkey puzzle tree, why not leave a comment below.