throw a monkey wrench/spanner in the works

caddook

New Member
United States
The COD and Webster, as well as numerous online sites, define "throw a monkey wrench in the works" (American) and "throw a spanner in the works" (British) with different meanings. The first is said to mean "to cause problems for someone's plans, to make them more difficult", while the second is said to mean "to do something that prevents a plan or activity from succeeding".

Most online sites (The Free Dictionary, Wikipedia, and many others) give these different meanings for the US and UK idioms, while a few add the "American" meaning as a second usage of the British expression.

Are the two idioms interchangeable? I (an American) am writing for a largely British audience (readership). I want to use one of these two idioms--with the US meaning. I prefer to use the British term 'spanner', but not if it would be misinterpreted, that is, taken to mean that something has happened that will cause my project to fail.

I'm hoping this forum has members who are fully conversant with British and American usage of these two expressions, especially if a clear distinction exists between them.
 
  • heypresto

    Senior Member
    English - England
    Personally, I can't see much, if any, significant difference between the two definitions. I've only ever heard the 'spanner' version of the expression, and if you had told me the 'American' definition was from a British dictionary, I wouldn't have queried it.
     

    PaulQ

    Banned
    UK
    English - England
    The COD and Webster, as well as numerous online sites, define "throw a monkey wrench in the works" (American) and "throw a spanner in the works" (British) with different meanings. The first is said to mean "to cause problems for someone's plans, to make them more difficult", while the second is said to mean "to do something that prevents a plan or activity from succeeding".

    Most online sites (The Free Dictionary, Wikipedia, and many others) give these different meanings for the US and UK idioms, while a few add the "American" meaning as a second usage of the British expression.
    For me, BE, and others may differ, "to throw a spanner in the works" has primarily the British meaning but more broadly, it is a combination of both. It stops or prevents, or is intended to stop or prevent, a course of action but, not necessarily, the goal, particularly where an alternative can be found. There need not be any malevolent intent to whatever "throws the spanner into the works." Further, I would expand both meanings to include acts of fate.

    "Damn! The bridge has been washed away! That throws a spanner in the works. We'll have to go the long way and we'll never reach home by 10 o'clock." -> defeat of reaching home when expected, but not of reaching home.

    "We won't be going to the game tomorrow. The boss has put a spanner in the works; he wants us all in the office." -> complete defeat.
     

    e2efour

    Senior Member
    UK English
    Welcome to the forum, Caddook!

    I am not convinced that there is a clear difference between the two expressions. The Oxford Dictionary of English Idioms talks about preventing the smooth or successful implementation of a plan, describing the US variant as deliberately wrecking someone's plans or activities. AHD, on the other hand, simply gives to disrupt. In Abbey's The Monkey Wrench Gang (which I highly recommend) sabotage was the main activity, although it did not ultimately prevent the realisation of the authorities' projects.
     
    Last edited:

    Parla

    Member Emeritus
    English - US
    I don't see that there's a major difference in meaning; I've seen both used, with essentially the same intent. Literally, they mean tossing a small hand tool into a piece of industrial machinery, which will at best cause a delay in the operation and at worst bring it to a screeching halt.
     
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