This phrase is a crude reference used to describe an ambient temperature. Every well digger knows his ass from his elbow and his ass from a hole in the ground, because their job requires them to use a shovel and a bucket to dig down deep into the earth to create a well. Why is a well digger’s ass so cold? Could a well digger’s ass be getting cold because they forgot to cover up their ass? Is a well digger’s ass any colder than a witch’s tit? Is a well digger’s ass cold enough to freeze the balls off of a brass monkey? Is it any colder than the handle on an outhouse door?
This phrase is a colloquialism, because it is a saying that expresses something other than the literal meaning of the words. This is also a simile because it makes a comparison between two things, such as in the saying, ‘as sure as a pig’s ass is pork, until he sits down and then it becomes pressed ham.’ This phrase is also a humorous idiom, because it is an expression where the meaning is not immediately apparent from a literal interpretation of the words. This would be similar to the phrase ‘useless as tits on a nun’, because they serve no sexual purpose, or ‘happy as a pig in shit’, because pigs seem to be extremely happy and obviously satisfied and carefree when they are in their own environment.
The phrase, ‘cold as a well digger’s ass’, has become cliché because it has been overused to the point of losing its original meaning or effect, even to the point of being trite or irritating, especially when at some earlier time, it was considered to be meaningful or novel. Some clichés are stereotypes, and they are often are employed for comic effect. A cliché is often a vivid depiction of an abstraction that relies upon analogy or exaggeration for effect, often drawn from everyday experience. Most phrases that are now considered to be clichés were originally regarded as striking, but they have been destroyed by time and they lost their significance, because they have been overused, so they should only be used sparingly. Being cold as a well digger’s ass may no longer be all that it was once cracked up to be and it now holds about as much meaning as being as busy as a one-armed wallpaper-hanger.
This expression may have originated from the French saying, ‘Il fait un froid de canard’, which literally means ‘It’s a duck-like cold’, but when simplified it just means ‘It’s freezing.’ It is thought to come from hunting in winter time, because the hunter has to stand very still and remain motionless to let the duck come within range, and quite often this duck hunter would get chills from the cold weather. As far as the brass monkey saying goes, this stems from an old naval expression, where cast iron cannon balls were stacked in pyramids on shallow brass trays that were called monkeys. When the temperature got really cold, the thermal expansion between the cast iron and the brass caused the balls to roll off.
Wells are extremely important to all societies. In many places wells provide a reliable and ample supply of water for home uses, irrigation, and industries. Where surface water is scarce, such as in deserts, people can’t survive and thrive without groundwater. Well digging advanced once man invented pottery and/or animal skin bag technology that was needed to lift or carry water. With this development, individuals could enter a well and hand or carry containers of soil or water up to the surface, allowing deeper wells to be dug. Eventually, ropes were tied to containers to lift dirt or water from greater depths, enabling even deeper wells to be dug. In order to be in the hole and keep digging with a shovel, the digger’s ass would need to be pressed against the opposite wall of the cold, wet earthen hole. Digging a well for water would leave the digger wet, and cold, especially if the source of the water is a cold spring.
Joseph Fourier studied the diurnal and annual variations of temperature underground and terrestrial temperatures. He realized that the surface temperatures on Earth changed drastically, but temperatures of the ground below the Earth remained more constant. Fourier wrote, “No diurnal variation can be detected at the depth of about three meters [ten feet]; and the annual variations cease to be appreciable at a depth much less than sixty meters.” At a certain depth below the surface of the Earth, the temperature at a given place experiences no annual variation and this permanent underground temperature becomes less and less according as the location of this place is more and more distant from the equator.
Once you dig deeper than about 10 feet, the ground temperature is a fairly constant at 53 degrees Fahrenheit. If a well digger’s ass is subject to the ambient temperature of 53 degrees, that would feel chilly, but it isn’t all that cold. An Olympic ice skater or a bobsledder might have a much colder ass than a well digger. If the temperature of a well digger’s backside was to be taken rectally, than it would most likely read the same as yours and mine.
Written for Linda Hill’s October 14, 2017 Stream of Consciousness Saturday, where the prompt is well.