Witch’s Tits and Brass Monkey Balls

Curious, isn’t it, the phrases we use for “fucking cold weather?” “Colder than a witch’s tit, colder than a witch’s tit in a brass bra, cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey” – I hear those three regularly in my neck of the woods (which happens to be southeastern/south central Wisconsin, for those keeping track of such things).

I’ve been poking around for the source of the witch connection. Sadly, I have to report there isn’t much of one. Aside from the “witch marks” that were supposedly assumed to be (how’s that for vague?) cold and numb, searched for during the days of Matthew Hopkins, what’s so cold about a witch’s tit, really? Jonathon Green in the Chambers Slang Dictionary (2008) dates “colder than a witch’s tit” (also “titty”) to the 1930s. Related phrases in that same entry, about “weather, very cold,” are “colder than a nun’s snatch” (1950s) and “colder than a welldigger’s butt” (the same). Those last two are cited as US in origin. (I wonder what US speakers have against nuns that UK speakers don’t?)

Regarding that “witch’s tit/teat” phrase, Bruce Kahl (“Origin of ‘colder than a witches tit‘”) explains that it’s ultimately “just a vivid metaphor, like ‘hotter than the hinges of hell.’” He does explain the process of hunting for witch marks, though. The problem with trying to connect cold weather to witches’ tits is that, well, there’s no real connection to be found. There are a few hundred years between poking people with bodkins to find witch marks and the first citation for the use of the phrase to mean “It’s fucking cold outside.” That is 1932, according to Barry Popik, in F. van Mason’s Spider House. Popik also cites “cold as a witch’s kiss” from 1918, in “The Confessions of a German Deserter,” page 9, column 4, of the Rockford (IL) Register-Gazette. That use refers to “the inside of a cloud” rather than weather in general, though.

There are variations on the theme that add “brass” to the mix, like “colder than a witch’s tit in a brass bra” or “colder than a brass witch’s tit” (that one’s from Twitter user @QueenKika). Then there are the ones that aren’t about witches, tits, or brass at all: In addition to the already noted welldigger’s ass and nun’s snatch, we have “colder’n a clam’s cunt” (attested to by James Harbeck, who heard it from an acquaintance of his in Alberta) and “butt-ass cold” from Twitter user @ecormany (who happens to be another contributor here). I rather like the repetition in that one, personally. Not just butt, not just ass, but butt-ass. The exact tweet is: “I’ve said ‘butt-ass cold’ way too many times in the past couple weeks.”

And that brings me back to brass (well, if I add an R and take out the UTT and the hyphen), as in “brass monkey,” as in “cold enough to freeze the balls off of a.” I went first to Snopes to see what they said. In a nutshell (nuts, balls, yeah whatever Karen, get on with it), “No one really knows . . . but the explanation offered here is not the answer.” So it’s definitely not anything to do with cannonballs on sailing ships.

Michael Quinion of World Wide Words suggests that the phrase has to do with souvenirs from China and Japan, in the forms of monkeys, usually cast in brass. We know them as “the three wise monkeys,” with the accompanying saying “See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.” While “three wise monkeys” is comparatively recent, the image itself goes back much farther. Notably, the weather-related phrase originated with the sense of heat, not cold. Quinion cites Melville’s Omoo, from 1850: “It was ‘ot enough to melt the nose h’off a brass monkey.” Furthermore, brass monkeys were associated with more than mere weather. Again from Quinion, we see a 1913 usage “talk the tail off a brass monkey” (Kate Douglas Wiggin, The Story of Waitstill Baxter) and another from 1919, of someone who “has the gall of a brass monkey” (Talbot Mundy’s The Ivory Trail).

I just checked the weather forecast for here. The predicted highs are all above 0F, which is a delightful change. I don’t see any active wind chill advisories or warnings, either. We could see 37F on Tuesday. Definitely not cold as a witch’s tit, with or without that brass bra. (And the monkey can keep his balls, as they’ll neither freeze nor melt at that temperature.)

 

20 thoughts on “Witch’s Tits and Brass Monkey Balls

  1. Tony Thorne February 27, 2015 / 4:57 pm

    Urban Dictionary has a lengthy and ingenious explanation of Brass Monkey, defining it as a brass tray for cannonballs on board ship. I suspect it’s quite spurious.

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    • David John Repischak March 22, 2017 / 3:38 pm

      Cold enough to “FREEZE the BALLS OFF a BRASS MONKEY” refers to iron canon balls stacked on BRASS triangular racks. The two metals freeze at different temperatures. Hence, the cannon balls would rolls OFF the BRASS MONKEY holding the balls in place. This would frequently happen in the 17th & 18th century on military ships.

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  2. Tony Thorne February 27, 2015 / 4:59 pm

    Oh, and Australia has ‘*dry* [not cold] as a nun’s nasty.’

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  3. grammargeddonangel February 27, 2015 / 5:06 pm

    The Snopes information I linked to thoroughly debunks the cannonballs on sailing ships story, yes. I noted that in the post. 😉

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    • David John Repischak March 22, 2017 / 3:47 pm

      The two metals DO freeze at different temperatures, so it is feasible. Furthermore, the Witch’s tit saying has a BRASS bar in it as well – I believe they must have something to do with metal & the temperatures they freeze.

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  4. Adam Pack February 27, 2015 / 7:23 pm

    Two things that might be of interest:
    My grandmother, a Geordie, used to say ‘cold as a witch’s tit’ so it’s not unknown in England.
    There’s a popular belief that witches dance naked at midnight, which would probably give them cold tits. Just a thought; not sure how you’d test it.

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    • grammargeddonangel February 28, 2015 / 4:14 pm

      Hi, Adam.

      Note that nothing here says the phrase is unknown in the UK. Rather, the first appearance in print (which makes it citable) was in a US book. That’s all that means.

      I’ve known witches to dance naked at all times of day, in all seaasons, honestly . . . 😉

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      • Adam Pack February 28, 2015 / 6:46 pm

        Sorry, I phrased that badly. I wasn’t implying that you meant it was exclusively US usage, just trying to add to the data. I’m afraid I don’t have any first-hand experience of witch-dancing, so I can’t help there.
        🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      • grammargeddonangel February 28, 2015 / 9:12 pm

        No worries. I wasn’t sure what you meant, but it sounds like it’s all good from both sides now. Thanks for clarifying. It’s appreciated.

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  5. dreamlikeacharm February 28, 2015 / 12:51 am

    I live in the south of the UK but I used to be in the west, and oh my gosh this is so entertaining yet so interesting to read. I mostly hear “awh it’s bloody freezen’ out yur” or somethng along the lines of “im freezing my nipples off!”

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  6. hanmeng February 28, 2015 / 3:39 am

    Brass monkey balls? Those have got to be “balls that clang”. Before they drop off, anyway.

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    • grammargeddonangel February 28, 2015 / 9:13 pm

      Now see, I always assumed tits sans brassiere, unless the speaker says “in a brass bra.” Interesting, yes? 😉

      Like

  7. jenniferdrolph March 3, 2015 / 5:51 pm

    “Colder than a well digger’s ass” is popular in NC for some reason lol.

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  8. GK December 8, 2016 / 7:29 pm

    Well tonight in Dallas it’s going to be as cold as a witch’s well-digger’s mother-in-law’s brass heart!

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  9. Jojo U.D. December 30, 2016 / 3:26 pm

    “Colder than a cunt full of cold piss”
    How’s that for chilly?

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