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On brass monkeys and dead horses

D. Murali

UP there, temperatures run high on the election thermometer, but mercury is fairly at a low altitude. Instead of shivering to mumble, "Too chilly," you may say the weather is enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey. Before you twitch your nose and turn away, let me assure you that this usage has an innocuous story to back, as Albert Jack explains in his new book, Red Herrings and White Elephants.

Jack looks at old nautical records about 18th century warships to learn that gunpowder used to be stored in stray nooks here and there as a measure of safety. Orphan boys were hired to ferry the dangerous cargo. Since these lads were agile enough to squeeze through tight spaces, they were called `powder monkeys.' Cannonballs were held in brass trays, and `by association,' these came to be known as `brass monkeys.'

Why brass, because the cannonballs won't "stick to or rust on brass." The tray had indentations to accommodate 16 cannonballs that formed the base of a pyramid of balls. With winter came a peculiar problem: the balls would fall off the pyramid hither and thither. How so? Because "brass contracts faster in cold weather than iron," and so the indentations holding the base of the pyramid would contract. Thus, when that happened, they knew how cold it was.

If that's by and large an explanation of the idiom, where does that come from? Again from nautical roots, explains Jack. Sailing `by' means steering a ship very close to the line of the wind, he writes, "and sailing `large' means the wind is on the quarter." What was the advantage of sailing by and large? It was easier to keep the ship on course when winds changed and conditions became difficult; and the helmsman would sail "not in a particularly accurate way, just generally in the right direction." Netas are usually trained to deal with subjects `by and large,' that is, in general terms instead of going into details that people wait to listen. So, this is a very useful spin methodology.

Okay, you're taking all that with `a pinch of salt,' as you do the many promises that come from our politicians. On this, again, there is a story that goes to A.D. 77, when Pliny the Elder wrote Addito Salis Grano in Latin. He had discovered the story of King Mithridates VI, recounts Jack. That king had once ruled Pontus and was famed for his immunity to poison. How did he achieve that feat? The king would fast and then take regular doses of poison "with a single grain of salt in an effort to make it more palatable." Thus, today's hyperbole was yesterday's poison. Bean counters may be interested in how the beans got spilled, to mean giving away a secret; and it may be topical too to know the background. It seems there was an ancient tradition in Greece when they wanted to elect a new member to private clubs. There were no electronic voting machines or ballot papers, so they gave each existing member "a white and brown bean with which to cast their votes."

White meant yes, and brown meant no. After voting, all the beans were in the jar and the prospective member wouldn't know how many were for and how many, against.

"Unless, that is, the jar was knocked over and the beans spilled."

To reflect on the outcome of the ongoing elections would be like flogging a dead horse, though. On that, however, sometime later...

SayCheek@TheHindu.co.in

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