Steam, Balls and Brass Monkeys: A Lesson in Hermeneutics

Wednesday morning in Hermeneutics class, we were discussing Biblical wisdom literature, and Proverbs in particular. Our professor, the esteemed August Konkel, was telling us that Proverbs function like riddles. He then used a cliché as an example: “He ran out of steam.”  The meaning behind this phrase is not self-evident–it requires a context outside of the text itself in order to be understood. The Korean students in the class did not know what this phrase meant, so we discussed steam power briefly in explanation.

Then Dr. Konkel said, “Here’s another good example: ‘It’s cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey.'” The Korean students didn’t understand this one either.  The North American students all started to laugh. The incongruity of the president of an evangelical seminary using such a crass phrase as an example in class was both shocking and delightful. We were all, of course, thinking of that brass monkey’s testicles.

The professor went on to explain that it is an old naval term, from back in the day when ships had cannons. “Brass monkey” was the name for a ring or triangle of brass that was used as the base to stack cannonballs in a pyramid (think of the thing you use to rack up billiards balls). Metals shrink in cold weather and brass shrinks faster than the iron in the cannonballs.  When it got really cold in the North Sea, the brass monkey would shrink and cause the pyramid of cannonballs to topple. Hence: it was cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey.

Whether this explanation for the term is true or not (it appears that it is not) is beside the point.  The Westerners understood the term to be a crass phrase referring to a particular part of a monkey’s anatomy; the Easterners in the class simply did not understand the phrase at all; people from say, somewhere in Africa, may have interpreted it in another way. But none of our interpretations reflected the meaning of the phrase.

The point of the lesson was what a proverb is, but the unintentional lesson was one about how the inevitability of our cultural and experiential biases influence our interpretation of a text.  “Cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey” made perfect sense to me, so I assumed to know what was meant by the phrase when in fact, my interpretation of that phrase was not even close to its actual meaning.

We do this with all sorts of “texts”: books, advertising, films, and even (perhaps especially) the Bible.

Which, incidentally, is why not even the most ‘literal, word-for-word’ English translation of the Old Testament will retain the phrase “hot of nose” in reference to God’s anger, because that phrase simply does not translate into English (just as “He ran out of steam” did not translate into Korean).

5 thoughts on “Steam, Balls and Brass Monkeys: A Lesson in Hermeneutics

  1. Gavin

    I would LOVE to hear Gus utter that phrase…. Let me know if he has any salty sailor wisdom to explain the phrase “colder than a witch’s tit.”

  2. Toni

    I’ve been holding myself back from being provocative on this topic (I had some ideas that seemed funny to me, but would have probably not been useful, really).

    Just a question. If God being ‘hot of nose’ means essentially ‘being angry’ then why does it matter whether your translation is truly word for word, unless you are trying to find a different meaning to fit your own theology from the phrase?

  3. Marc

    Toni: WRT your question: it doesn’t matter, which is kind of my point. I’m thinking of those publishers wh0 advertise their translations as “more literal, word-for-word”. People take this to mean “literal, word-for-word” without the “more” at the beginning. But that’s the key: MORE word-for-word than this other translation, but not simply word-for-word.

  4. Toni

    I understand the lack of true literalness. I have a Greek to English where you can see the words simply don’t line up, due to constructional differences.

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