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Monkey wrench

Q From Dennis Glanzman: I queried World Wide Words for the origin of the term monkey wrench. You make a passing reference to this tool under lead-pipe cinch, but you have nothing on monkey wrench itself. Wikipedia has a brief description of the origin of the name, from inventor Charles Moncky, but it seems all too pat, like Thomas Crapper and the flush toilet. What does the learned Dr Quinion have to say on the matter?

A The occasionally well-informed Mr Quinion has some interesting facts to impart but comes, as so often, to no clear conclusion.

The source has long been a puzzle and has given rise to many tries at explaining it. A contributor to American Speech in 1930 pointed out that a precursor to the device a century earlier was called a key wrench and suggested that its successor was at first called the non-key wrench. In 1931, another writer in the same journal noted that he had “years ago”, read an account “to the effect that this useful tool was invented by an English man named Mon(c)k.” Around 1932-33 a report appeared in the Transcript of Boston asserting that an American by the name of Monk employed by Bemis & Call of Springfield, Massachusetts, invented the device, which became known by his name. This is an earlier assertion of a similar origin:

Charles Monckey, inventor of the Monckey wrench (wrongfully called monkey wrench), is living in poverty in Brooklyn. He sold the patent for $2000, and now millions are made annually out of the invention.

Galveston Daily News (Texas), 23 Oct. 1886. Similarly worded snippets appeared around the same time in the Chicago Evening Journal, the Weekly Detroit Free Press and the Atchison Daily Globe, among others.

One of the editors at the OED tells me that they have in their files a letter dated as early as 1893 expressing scepticism about such theories; he also points out that the tool is referred to as a monkey wrench years before suggestions of an origin in a proper name appeared. All such suggestions come without evidence to support them. Despite much searching in early tool catalogues and patents, no specialist researcher has been able to find any link to a named person; indeed, the tool wasn’t invented from scratch, but was an early nineteenth-century refinement of one from the eighteenth century that historians of toolmaking call a carriage wrench. So we have to assume that all these stories linking its name to a person are hearsay or folk etymology.

Many readers have suggested a connection might exist with the historical sense of monkey for a person, especially grease monkey, a mechanic. However, that term is recorded no earlier than the 1920s. The list of similar terms is short — powder monkeys were youths on Royal Navy ships whose job was to bring charges to the guns from the powder magazine; a pile monkey is a moderately recent term for the operator of a drilling rig. It’s hardly likely that powder monkey — the only one that predates monkey wrench — could have been a model for a man who used the tool.

A cartoon showing the way a monkey-wrench might have got its name
A serious suggestion for the origin?

In 1973, E Surrey Dane published a book with the snappy title Peter Stubs and the Lancashire Hand Tool Industry, which includes a reference dated 1807 to a firm supplying “Screw plates, lathes, clock engines ... monkey wrenches, taps.” The entry in the online Oxford English Dictionary includes this but with a question mark before the date, which means that their editors have yet to verify it beyond doubt. There’s then a gap until it turns up in Francis Whishaw’s The Railways of Great Britain and Ireland, dated 1840; , in which he quotes Orders to Enginemen and Firemen issued by the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, dated 1837; this includes a list of tools that must be kept in a locomotive cab, including “one large and one small monkey wrench”. This reference shows that the term was even then common enough not to need explaining. The term was first used in print in the US — so far as I can discover — in an issue of the Natchez Daily Courier for 1838.

This dating evidence says nothing about the true origin. As matters stand we can’t even be sure in which country it was invented. It seems most likely that the explanation is very simple: that the jaws of the wrench reminded some early user of the face of a monkey.

Page created 24 Oct. 2009

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Last modified: 24 October 2009.