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Old 11-10-2008, 08:15   #1
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The Origins of Nautical Sayings

Did you every wonder where some of the odd nautical sayings came from? Sailing seems to have a particularly rich repertoire of well-used sayings that have no obvious basis in modern life.

Well, here's a thread for posting your favorites--either to ask for help in discovering their origins, or to post your own take on where they may have originated.
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Old 11-10-2008, 08:17   #2
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Cannon Ball Storage
It was necessary to keep a good supply of cannon balls near the cannon on old war ships. But how to prevent them from rolling about the deck was the problem. The best storage method devised was to stack them as a square based pyramid, with one ball on top, resting on four, resting on nine, which rested on sixteen. Thus, a supply of 30 cannon balls could be stacked in a small area right next to the cann on.There was only one problem -- how to prevent thebottom layer from sliding/rolling from under the others. The solution was a metal plate with 16 round indentations, called a Monkey. But if this plate were made of iron, the iron balls would quickly rust to it. The solution to the rusting problem was to make Brass Monkeys.

Few landlubbers realize that brass contracts much more and much faster than iron when chilled. Consequently, when the temperature dropped too far, the brass indentations would shrink so much that the iron cannon balls would come right off the monkey. Thus, it was quite literally, cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey. And all this time, you thought that was a vulgar expression, didn't you?
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Old 11-10-2008, 11:08   #3
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Sorry, Hud - I like the idea of this thread, but your example is bogus. Here's what snopes.com has to say about it:

snopes.com: Brass Monkeys

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Old 11-10-2008, 12:03   #4
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Well, it's still a good story, don't you think?

It was sent to me by a historian who's written books about the history of the Caribbean, and is quite knowledgeable about the ships of that period. He also has a super sense of humor and is a great kidder. Maybe he was pulling my leg.
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Old 11-10-2008, 12:14   #5
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I have been told of the same origin of brass monkey saying, so there must be something to it.

How about "son of a gun" the result of local girls sneaking aboard and getting pregnant under the cannon.
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Old 11-10-2008, 12:37   #6
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The differential of the coefiecient of elongation between the metals is not enough to make the balls fall off. They didn't store shot on deck either.
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Old 11-10-2008, 12:40   #7
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The Committee to Ascribe a Naval Origin to Everything (CANOE), of which I was founder and past Emperor, defines “Cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey” as “Very cold weather conditions”, and endorses Hud’s etymology.

In general usage, the phrase means something to the effect that it’s 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”).

Notwithstanding; the Royal Navy records that cannon-balls were stored in planks with circular holes cut into them; not stacked in pyramids. These planks were known as 'shot garlands', not monkeys, and they date back to at least 1769, when they were first referred to in print.

A little geometry suggests that a pyramid of balls will topple over if the base is tilted by more than a few degrees. It doesn’t seem plausible that cannon-balls were stacked this way, aboard ship.

The young boys who helped with the loading of cannons on naval ships were called powder monkeys. Ancient forms of cannon called were sometimes called brass monkeys, or drakes, or dogs.
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Old 11-10-2008, 16:22   #8
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"the devil to pay" When paying the seams on the old sailing ships, they had to use the tide as there were no travel lifts or dry docks. The tide gives you limited time, and that bottom seam just above the keal was a "devil to pay"
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Old 11-10-2008, 17:23   #9
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Back in the days of Drake and the HMS Victory they use wooden plates. As CNC machines and so on didn't exist they found it a lot easier to make the plates square.

And hence '3 squares a day' or '3 square meals a day'.

Guessing on the actual time frame but I know Victory had square plates so it probably pre-dates that.
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Old 11-10-2008, 17:28   #10
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Oh another.

Way back in them old days as well when you were naughty they gave you the Cat of 9 Tails thrashing. If you were real real bad they tied knots in the end of the 9 tails. If you got that it did leave big marks. When swapping ships they had to show their backs to the recruiter dude. If they had had the knotted version they were known as marked men.

Hence 'you're a marked man' when you have been caught being bad.

Not massively sure about that one but is certianly sounds OK. Where's our own Gordopedia, he'll know.
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Old 11-10-2008, 20:32   #11
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Old 11-10-2008, 20:34   #12
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I will post a picture of a brass monkey...for cannonballs.....They do exist....I've seen one
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Old 11-10-2008, 20:40   #13
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Me too. But I could not find a pic

And remember that cannon balls were not only kept on ships........
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Old 11-10-2008, 21:20   #14
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From the Naval Historical Center's website:

"It has often been claimed that the "brass monkey" was a holder or storage rack in which cannon balls (or shot) were stacked on a ship. Supposedly when the "monkey" with its stack of cannon ball became cold, the contraction of iron cannon balls led to the balls falling through or off of the "monkey." This explanation appears to be a legend of the sea without historical justification. In actuality, ready service shot was kept on the gun or spar decks in shot racks (also known as shot garlands in the Royal Navy) which consisted of longitudinal wooden planks with holes bored into them, into which round shot (cannon balls) were inserted for ready use by the gun crew. These shot racks or garlands are discussed in: Longridge, C. Nepean. The Anatomy of Nelson's Ships. (Annapolis MD: Naval Institute Press, 1981): 64. A top view of shot garlands on the upper deck of a ship-of-the-line is depicted in The Visual Dictionary of Ships and Sailing. New York: Dorling Kindersley, 1991): 17.

The pertinent page can be accessed at:

Term: brass monkey

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Old 12-10-2008, 00:44   #15
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Just for the sake of conversation here are some items from a ship of 1691 (A.C. Ra Lamb).
#31 the rope around the shot was called a "shot grommet" and the board with the holes is a "shot gauge". All the references I have found have never called them "cannon balls" but "shot".

Any time I have found shot stacked was only on a battle field and not on ships. and the oldest reference I can find to "brass monkey" is what they use to call the Cunard Lines flag.

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