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  Issue 113, page 4

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From Bob Seidenstein:

First, let me tell you I love your site. Being an obsessive word maven from way back, every issue is a delight. I guess a lot of it has to do with how little most people care about words and word origins, versus how much I do. The top isn't the only place it's lonely at.

Second, in your last issue, the "freeze the balls off a brass monkey" and its origins intrigued me and have spurred me into writing.  Of course, we're all dealing with speculation here, but I have a lot of trouble believing the naval cannonball origins of the phrase are correct. To me, it's pretty direct - it's just a vivid metaphor; the balls referred to are indeed testicles, and the story about the cannonball stand being its origin is just another sea story.

My skepticism is based on one main point: It strikes me as implausible that the navy would have cannonballs rolling around the deck of a ship, once the mercury dropped. Or if it actually happened (and I've never seen any historical reference to it), you can bet it would be rectified mightily quickly (especially since it would seem to be a simple matter of making a bigger indentation).

Granted, the military has been known for some colossal blunders, I simply don't think they'd allow their only ammunition to be set up so it could suddenly launch itself (and on the deck, at that). 

So, sorry, I'm just not going to buy this one - at least not until I see verified accounts of the metaphoric brass monkeys freezing their metaphoric balls off.

I guess it's the same for another one of my favorite similes about cold - colder than a well digger's ass. And if anyone finds its origin has to do with the mules that well diggers used to carry their equipment, I'm going to really start to have massive doubts.

Anyway, forgive my electronic long-windedness.  As I said, I love your site and think you're doing a great - and an entertaining - service for all of us.

From Dennis Foley:

Although I haven't offered the customary encomium to TOWFI in past submissions, I do love the sight (sic). To cut down on clutter, maybe you should follow Rush Limbaugh's lead and invite readers to begin their contributions with the word "Dittoes."  Anyway, in Words to the Wise (Issue 112) Brian Gahagan asked about the widely-circulated "Brass Monkey" e-mail. When I received the same e-mail I was skeptical, so I went to the wonderful Urban Legends site, where the cannonball etymology is thoroughly debunked. See: http://www.snopes.com/spoons/fracture/brass.htm

We did admit that the cannon-holder etymology was unsubstantiated.  However, we don't agree that the Snopes site "thoroughly debunked" this derivation of the brass monkey phrase.  The author of that article simply gave several reasons why the etymology doesn't make sense.  However, logic is not always involved in the birth of a cliché.  We'll stand by the possibility that the phrase derives from at least a naval source.  See this week's Spotlight where we discuss this etymology further.

As an aside, etymologist Christine Ammer has suggested that this cliché derives from the brass monkey figurines that were popular in Victorian Britain.  These statuettes were copies of a carving from a Japanese temple.  They depicted three monkeys - one covering its eyes, another covering its ears and the last covering its mouth.  The implied message was "see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil".  Ms. Ammer's  explanation seems tempting but it remains pure speculation.  In its favor we might point out that a book of 1835 has the phrase shaking like a monkey in frosty weather.  This graphic image may well have been the progenitor of all "cold monkey" phrases.  The earliest recorded example of a cold enough to... phrase is cold enough to freeze the whiskers off a brass monkey (1912) followed by cold enough to freeze the tail off a brass monkey (1922).  It is quite possible that this was progressively coarsened to take its present form.

We think it fair to inform our readers that we are divided over whether this is more plausible than the cannonball origin.  To help decide the matter, we intend to consult a naval historian about how cannonballs were stowed.

From Kate Brooks:

I'm writing to ask whether you've ever come across a copy of the book "Traditions of the Navy," by Cedric W. Windas. It was published in 1942 by Our Navy Inc. Publishers in Brooklyn, New York. The book offers the (supposed) etymology of numerous words of naval origin (i.e. limey, bootlegger, stick-in-the-mud), accompanied by wonderful pen and ink sketches.   This book says that brass monkey is:  "The international nickname for the very dignified golden lion on the crimson field of the Cunard Steamship Company's handsome house-flag."   My husband (a former sailor) learned your version of brass monkey (i.e. a brass plate on which cannon balls were kept).  I don't know how accurate this book is, but it addresses hundreds of terms. What do you think? 

Also, on the subject of pique/peek/peak, our local newspaper invited members of the public to visit an open-house and "take a peak inside the new police station." It IS a biggish building... but not THAT big! 

We haven't seen Windas' book, but neither have we seen any evidence to support a derivation of the brass monkey phrase from the Cunard line's flag.  The term brass monkey has been around since the 17th century.  The Cunard line was founded in 1840.

Shame on your local newspaper!  Have you thought about offering yourself as the new editor?

From Juhani Polvinen:

You said in last issue of Take Our Word for It

Others believe that the word Rus derives from the Finnish name Ruotsi, given to the Swedish men who rowed Viking ships. Ruotsi is said to mean "rowers". Ruotsi, one source claims, was also a Finnish name for "Sweden".

First, Ruotsi is indeed "Sweden" in Finnish.  Secondly, I have heard also other explanation for name Russia, maybe not contradictory.  It claims that the Viking tribe that settled in Kiev was called Russlan in Swedish or close to that. 

Thanks for clearing that up!  Your explanation for the source of the name Russia sounds basically like one of those we suggested, with a slight change to the name of the Viking tribe.

From Ray Adams:

Appreciated your clarification on Lucifer as "light bearer" and the good confirmation from Ika Gorelik. Your closing comment regarding the Babylonian goddess Ishtar prompts this reply.  From my resource (D.H. Wheaton from an article in The New Bible Dictionary (J.D. Douglas editor, 1973) on Lucifer) I found agreement on your comment.  Both Babylonians and Assyrians personified the morning star as Belit and Ishtar.  Maybe this is the source of the crescent moon?

By the way, I am a new reader to your most interesting and informative site.  I've directed many friends your way. Language is so fascinating!  Thank you for all your work, an excellent contribution to my linguistic enlightenment.

We're glad you enjoy the site.  Thanks for your letter!


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