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

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Throw a spanner in the works

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  • What's the meaning of the phrase 'Throw a spanner in the works'?

    To Throw a spanner in the works is to, deliberately or otherwise, cause disruption; to interfere with the smooth running of something.

    What's the origin of the phrase 'Throw a spanner in the works'?

    A spanner in the works 'Throw (or put) 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 wasn't coined to describe an actual event but for its imagery.

    The expression comes in a variety of forms - 'put/throw a spanner in the works/wheels/gears'. The 'throw a spanner in the works' variation is the most commonly used. It appears to be something of a linguistic rarity - a commonly used English phrase that was coined in New Zealand.

    The first record of the phrase that I can find in print is in The Parliamentary Debates of the New Zealand Parliament, 1932:

    "Of course, every honourable member has a right to express his opinions, even of a critical nature, but I do think we should expect them to help and not throw a spanner in the gears."

    That doesn't use the 'spanner in the works' form which is now more common but it is clearly essentially the same expression.

    The earliest use of 'throw a spanner in the works' that I can find 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."

    Another early citation is found in the Australian newspaper The Age, February 1936:

    Australia has dropped a spanner in the works of a plan for the greatest development in the history of world transport.

    The fact that there are several other examples in print from New Zealand and Australia which pre-date the take up of the phrase in the UK lends weight to its Antipodean coinage.

    The expression didn't spread quickly to the USA, where it is still not widely used.

    A spanner in the worksJohn Lennon used a play on this expression 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.

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