One of the best parts of being a writer is that it provides me with a legitimate excuse to feed my thirst for trivia and to always have a reason to continue to educate myself about all sorts of odds and ends.
Today with the help of the Oxford Dictionaries I am pleased to help you learn about the origins of “Brass Monkey” (it is not The Beastie Boys), “Dressed to the Nines” and “Codswallop.”
What is the origin of the term ‘brass monkey’?
The story goes that cannonballs used to be stored aboard ship in piles, on a brass frame or tray called a ‘monkey’. In very cold weather the brass would contract, spilling the cannonballs: hence very cold weather is ‘cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey’. There are several problems with this story, as follows:
- the term ‘monkey’ is not otherwise recorded as the name for such an object
- the rate of contraction of brass in cold temperatures is unlikely to be fast enough to cause the reputed effect
- the phrase is actually first recorded as ‘freeze the tail off a brass monkey’, which removes any essential connection with balls.
It therefore seems most likely that the phrase is simply a humorous reference to the fact that metal figures will become very cold to the touch in cold weather.
What is the origin of the term ‘dressed to the nines‘?
One theory is that it comes from the name of the 99th Wiltshire Regiment, known as the Nines, which was renowned for its smart appearance. There are a couple of problems with this suggestion, though. To begin with, the regiment’s sartorial reputation seems to have dated from the 1850s, while the first recorded use of the phrase is from 1837. Secondly, dressed to the nines developed as an extension of the much earlier phrase to the nines, meaning ‘to perfection, to the greatest degree’: the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary‘s first example of this earlier form dates back to 1719.
Why it should have been to the nines rather than to the eights, to the sevens, etc. remains unclear.
What is the origin of the word ‘codswallop’?
The story goes that a man by the name of Hiram Codd patented a bottle for fizzy drinks with a marble in the neck, which kept the bottle shut by pressure of the gas until it was pressed inwards. Wallop was a slang term for beer, and Codd’s wallop came to be used by beer drinkers as a derogatory term for weak or gassy beer, or for soft drinks.
This theory has appeared in Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, but there are problems with it. ‘Codswallop’ is not recorded until the mid-20th century, rather a long time after Codd’s invention, and there are no examples of the spelling Codd’s wallop, which might be expected as an early form. These problems do not conclusively disprove the theory – it’s conceivable that the term circulated by word of mouth, like many slang terms, and that the connection with Codd’s bottle had been forgotten by the time the term was written down – but they do shed doubt on the tale.
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Some of these links might be considered narishkeit, but I’ll let you be the judge of that.
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And this my friends is the post that confirms I have completed 30 straight days of posting. Not only that, but I have done so with a smile, no word yet on whether it is a friendly or “crazy” one.