Many of our popular sayings originated in colonial times. I’d like to share some interesting historical trivia that friends have shared with me. During the early days when our country was settled, common entertainment included playing cards. However, there was a tax levied when purchasing playing cards applicable only to the ‘Ace of Spades...’ To avoid the tax, people would purchase 51 cards instead. Most games however, require 52 cards, so these people were thought to be stupid or dumb because they weren’t “playing with a full deck.”
At local taverns, pubs, and bars, people drank from pint and quart-sized containers. A bar maid’s job was to keep an eye on the customers and keep the drinks coming. She had to pay close attention and remember who was drinking in pints and who was drinking in quarts, hence the phrase “minding your P’s and Q’s.” In the late 1700’s, many houses consisted of a large room with only one chair.
Commonly, a long wide board folded down from the wall was used for dining. The head of the household always sat in the chair while everyone else ate sitting on the floor. Occasionally a guest, who was usually a man, would be invited to sit in this chair during a meal. To sit in the chair meant you were important and in charge. They called the one sitting in the chair the “chair man.” Today in business, we use the expression or title “chairman or chairman of the board.” Personal hygiene left much room for improvement. As a result, many women and men had developed acne scars by adulthood.
The women would spread bee's wax over their facial skin to smooth out their complexions. When they were speaking to each other, if a woman began to stare at another woman’s face she was told, “mind your own bee’s wax.” Should the woman smile, the wax would crack, hence the term “crack a smile.” In addition, when they sat too close to the fire, the wax would melt. Therefore, the expression “losing face.”
In the heyday of sailing ships, all war ships and many freighters carried iron cannons. Those cannons fired round iron cannon balls. It was necessary to keep a good supply near the cannon. However, how to prevent them from rolling about the deck? The best storage method devised was a square-based pyramid with one ball on top, resting on four resting on nine, which rested on 16.
Thus, a supply of 30 cannon balls could be stacked in a small area right next to the cannon. There was only one problem, how to prevent the bottom layer from sliding or rolling from under the others. The solution was a metal plate called a “monkey” with 16 round indentations. However, 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 cannonballs would come right off the monkey. Thus, it was quite literally, “Cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey.”