Spanner in the works?

中国日报网 2014-03-18 14:59



Spanner in the works?Reader question:

Please explain “spanner in the works” in the following (Three Things: Man United vs. Liverpool,, March 16, 2014):

A trio of thoughts from Liverpool’s 3-0 win vs. Man United….

When they did have possession, they over-deliberated. Rafael, bursting from full-back, was a threat, but suffered terribly from a lack of an ally on his right flank. Juan Mata refuses to be tethered there; the Spaniard is becoming a spanner in the works.

My comments:

In other words, Mata, the United player from Spain, is becoming disruptive to the team’s defense and offense. He does not link well with his teammates. If he were a piece of cog in a machine, he does not fit well with other cogs (being too big or small in size in comparison with others, for instance), which as a result means that the whole machine won’t be able to function seamlessly and perfectly.

Here, Mata is actually likened to a spanner, or a wrench, one of the most important everyday tools of any manufacturing factory. As a matter of fact, he’s likened to a spanner thrown in the works. The proper phrase is “put a spanner in the works” - works being colloquialism for a large machine.

To put a spanner in the works, of course, is to throw one’s spanner into the gears and thus bring the machine to a crumbling halt. This phrase, a British expression, is generally believed to be inspired by disgruntled workers in the industrial-revolution era, by workers who did so as a measure of protest or sabotage or whatever – or they did so simply to demonstrate their overall displeasure at the machine, which took and continues to take jobs from people.

However, The Phrase Finder ( points out that it is pretty “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.” In other words, no-one may actually have done it, but its image is terrifying enough for the expression to catch on. The expression itself was coined by the inimitable P. G. Wodehouse. More from the Phrase Finder:

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.

I find the Phrase Finder very plausible as Wodehouse was known for coining words and expressions at the spur of the moment. If you haven’t read any of Wodehouse’s works about Jeeves, the all-knowing butler, get yourself any copy you can find and read it. Wodehouse, though long dead, remains one of the best humorists in the English language.

Anyways, that’s the spanner in the works, a disruptive event or person that threatens to bring a whole enterprise to a collapse or halt.Here are more media examples of this very popular British expression:

1. Greece’s shock plan to hold a referendum on the eurozone rescue package has triggered a slump on world markets.

The FTSE 100 Index in London fell more than 2%, or 122.7 points, to 5421.6, after Greek prime minister George Papandreou's unexpected move cast fresh doubts on last week’s much-heralded proposals to protect Europe from economic collapse.

Barclays was down 9%, while taxpayer-backed banks Lloyds and Royal Bank of Scotland were down 6% and 8% respectively amid fears that Greece could default on its debts if it does not accept the plan....

Last week EU leaders agreed with banks a 50% “haircut” on Greek debt and to boost the eurozone bailout fund to one trillion euro (£870 billion), which follows an earlier decision to shore up banks' finances.

But Greek leader Mr Papandreou threw a spanner in the works when he announced his debt-strapped country will hold a vote on whether to accept the deal next January. The decision followed large-scale protests in Greece against austerity measures demanded by the European Union but analysts have warned a “No” vote could have a serious knock-on effect.

The Office for National Statistics revealed that GDP grew 0.5% between July and September, ahead of City forecasts of around 0.3%, but this did little to cheer traders.

- Greek poll panics world markets,, January 11, 2011.

2. Carmakers and dealers are also luring Internet-savvy British buyers by investing in social media buzz, Web sites and online tools to compare fuel and financing deals.

Data from the UK sales group AutoTrader shows that 10 years ago the average British consumer visited at least five dealerships before buying a car. With more research online, they now visit an average of two. Ford and Nissan spend over a third of their UK marketing budget online, up from about 10 percent a few years ago, as more shopping is done on screens.

For all the pitches, car sales could skid off course if the UK economy continues to bump along the border of recession and knocks consumer confidence, which hit a 12-month high in January in terms of people’s expectations about making a big purchase. Already, Britons are stretching their average car ownership to four-and-a-half years from three-and-a-half years, according to Auto Trader.

“If the UK falls back into recession, the doom and gloom surrounding that could really put a spanner in the works,” motor dealer Jarvis said.

- Carmakers pin hopes on Europe’s UK bright spot, Reuters, February 19, 2013.

3. One of the world’s biggest PC makers is reported to be pouring over BlackBerry's books, having signed a non-disclosure deal agreement with the ailing company to view its accounts, reports Wall Street Journal.

This is the latest twist in the BlackBerry sale story - it emerged last week that its co-founders too are mulling over a buyout of the company shares they don’t already own, potentially putting a spanner in the works of the proposed buyout by Canadian Insurance company Fairfax Financial.

Lenovo could make good use of BlackBerry’s mobile patents, manufacturing and other assets, considering the PC company is currently ramping up its smartphone unit.

The rumored takeover seems to be an increasing sign of the new economic power of Asian companies, snapping up struggling western companies.

- Lenovo Eyeing BlackBerry?, October 18, 2013.



About the author:

Zhang Xin is Trainer at He has been with China Daily since 1988, when he graduated from Beijing Foreign Studies University. Write him at:, or raise a question for potential use in a future column.



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(作者张欣 中国日报网英语点津 编辑:Julie)


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