spanner in the works


spanner in the works
also, wrench in the works


  • a roadblock that prevents an activity from succeeding
  • to deliberately sabotage an activity

Example Sentences

  1. The lack of power has thrown a spanner in the works regarding our MS-PowerPoint presentation.
  2. His inability to procure funding for his trial has really thrown a spanner in the works.
  3. Let’s make sure that we get this done before Suzy comes along and changes her mind again. That will really throw a spanner in the works.
  4. Jack’s inability to show up for practise is really throwing a spanner in the works.


This is the British version of the idiom. The American version is to throw a wrench in the works. Wrench is simply the American name for a spanner.

To put a spanner in “the works” causes it to grind to a halt. It deliberately damages something.

The origin could possibly relate to the Luddites. They were a group of textile workers in the 1800s who destroyed weaving machines as a form of protest. They were scared that if machines could take over their jobs then they would become obsolete. They were known to throw spanners in “the works” in order to damage the machines.

The British version was first published in 1934 by PG Wodehouse in Right Ho, Jeeves.

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

The American version was used on 30 July 1907 in The Chicago Tribune:

It should look to them as if he were throwing a monkey wrench into the only market by visiting that Cincinnati circus upon the devoted heads of Kentucky’s best customers.

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According to legend, the phrase was coined in New Zealand in 1828 in a place called Whangamomona. The world’s first ever oil well was supposedly drilled there. They have a plaque there to commemorate it. This is what it says…

This is the site of the World’s First Oil Well drilled here in 1828. Legend has it that Mr Ewen McGregor set up the derrick and drilled a hole 700 feet deep. All was going well and signs of an oil strike were imminent when his son Jethro dropped a spanner down the hole. From this incident the term, ‘A spanner in the works’, originated, and is now known world-wide. The spanner was not retrievable and so another hole was drilled, this time to 1200 feet, where gas was struck. Alas Ewen’s other son Cletus fell into this hole, and ended all prospecting on the site.

I have no idea if this is a hoax or not, but I have the photo from when I visited the township last month. Happy to send it through if you like?

‒ Anonymous January 21, 2020

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