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The meaning and origin of the expression: Put a spanner in the works

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Put a spanner in the works


Deliberately causing mayhem.


'Put (or throw) a spanner in the works' refers to the calamitous effects of throwing a spanner into the gears and pistons of an engine. It's safe to say that the phrase was rarely called on to describe an actual event and is likely to have been coined for its imagery.

The first record of it in print is in P. G. Wodehouse's Right Ho, Jeeves, 1934:

"He should have had sense enough to see that he was throwing a spanner into the works."

The phrase sounds rather Wodehousian and it's quite possible that he coined it for that story.

John Lennon used a play on this in his book A Spaniard in the Works. Like most of us growing up in Britain in the 1950s Lennon was a fan of 'Professor' Stanley Unwin - a comic turn who spoke in a stream of inspired Spooneristic gobbledegook. The title owes much to Unwin's influence.