Monkey wrench

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Peter Reitan, previously involved in "Solving the mystery of 'off the cuff'" (2/21/2015), has now pointed us to an improved history of monkey wrench. His email:

Your Language Log post of March 22, 2009 about "Monkey Wrench" mentioned the traditional folk-etymology associated with the term; namely that it was widely believed to have been invented by a "London Blacksmith who invented an adjustable wrench."  All of the early recitations of that folk-etymology (early 1880s), however, attribute the wrench to Charles Moncky, said to have sold his invention for $2000 and to then be living in a small cottage in Brooklyn, New York.

Surprisingly, perhaps, the 1880 census for Brooklyn, New York reports a man named Charles Monk – "tool-maker "- living on Sixteenth Street in Brooklyn.  He may have inspired the folk-etymology; but he does not appear to have invented, inspired, or coined the "monkey wrench."  He was only twelve years old when the earliest-known, date-certain references for "monkey wrench" were published in 1840: See Peter Jensen Brown, "Charles Monk, Monkey Wrenches and 'Monkey on a Stick' – a Gripping History and Etymology of 'Monkey Wrench'", 10/14/2015.

Read the whole thing.


  1. Sidney Wood said,

    October 19, 2015 @ 5:46 am

    Nice story. Swedes often claim the invention, but too late for the 1840 railway regulation that mentions monkey wrenches. Johan Petter Johansson patented an adjustable spanner or wrench as late as 1891(the round-ended sort) that apparently was known throughout Europe as "bahco" after the name of Johansson's company (still in existence, still making them).

  2. Noam said,

    October 19, 2015 @ 6:50 am

    The Swedish claim seems to have made it into Hebrew, where, 30 years ago, anyway, adjustable crescent wrenches (the ones adjusted with a cylindrical worm gear) were called Swedish keys.

  3. J. W. Brewer said,

    October 19, 2015 @ 1:30 pm

    Re the note that early metaphorical usage was satisfied with just throwing a wrench into things, not specifying that it be a monkey wrench, I believe the usual BrEng idiom is to put/throw a spanner in the works, rather than any more specific type of spanner. (There is an early reggae song titled "Monkey Spanner" but I don't know if that two-word phrase idiomatically denotes a type of spanner to those accustomed to calling wrenches spanners.)

  4. Gregory Kusnick said,

    October 19, 2015 @ 5:15 pm

    To me, "monkey wrench" means a pipe wrench. An adjustable wrench for tightening bolts is a crescent wrench or C-wrench.

  5. William Berry said,

    October 19, 2015 @ 5:17 pm

    My father was a mechanic, metal fabricator and contractor, so I grew up around all kinds of machinery and tools. I was familiar with the "monkey wrench" (more often than not called a "pipe-wrench") from a young age and always just assumed it was so called due to its appearance when the jaws were closed, or partly closed. It is, indeed, somewhat evocative of the monkey head in profile.

    I am not sure that the etymology isn't over-explanation.

  6. William Berry said,

    October 19, 2015 @ 5:19 pm

    I see that Gregory Kusnick noted the "pipe-wrench" usage.

  7. William Berry said,

    October 19, 2015 @ 5:27 pm

    Apologizing for triple post, but:

    Reading the article through, I see that the "monkey on a stick" idea is not too far from my own supposition, but emphasizes the moving jaw of the tool rather than the over-all appearance.

    I think we are still at: who knows, for certain?

  8. MikeA said,

    October 19, 2015 @ 7:16 pm

    When I were a lad, there was a difference between:

    "Monkey Wrench" — Smooth, parallel jaws with as little as possible angular "play" with respect to the handle.


    "Pipe Wrench" — jaws serrated and somewhat curved to better match a round object, with significant angular play so the act of turning would also tighten the jaws.

    Yes, I sometimes heard the two terms used interchangeably, but not by folks who regularly used wrenches.

  9. DaveK said,

    October 19, 2015 @ 7:51 pm

    I've also heard a pipe wrench referred to as a Stilson wrench. And I once managed to convince a friend that the ballpeen hammer had been invented by an Irish mechanic named Michael Ballpeen.

  10. William Berry said,

    October 19, 2015 @ 7:52 pm

    @MikeA: Quite right. Something like a brain fart on my part, I suppose. I am sure that my old man knew the difference between a pipe-wrench and a monkey-wrench.

    Tangential to my point, (such as it was), and the issue of the OP, in any case.

  11. Vilinthril said,

    October 20, 2015 @ 5:58 am

    In German, it's an Engländer (“Englishman”).

  12. J. W. Brewer said,

    October 20, 2015 @ 10:08 am

    Re Michael Ballpeen, beginning calculus students often learn several methods for approximating integrals, including Simpson's Rule and the Trapezoidal Rule. Back when I was in high school a friend and I attempted to convince our classmates that the latter was named for its inventor, whom we asserted to have been an 18th century Swedish mathematician named Gustav Trapezoid.

  13. Flex said,

    October 20, 2015 @ 10:43 am

    At the time (I don't know about today), the weight that was lifted up and dropped on a pile to drive it to the ground was also called a monkey, and the type of pile-driver which used this process was called a monkey-engine.

    Take a look at pp. 2752-3, here:

    I seem to recall some other places where I've read about movable metal blocks being called monkeys, but I'm at a loss to remember where.

  14. Riikka said,

    October 20, 2015 @ 12:20 pm

    I recall there was a(t least one) QI episode where monkey wrenches were discussed.

    In the episode 1 of series 11 (Knees & Knockers, – 39:50) there's a discussion about monkey wrench and whether it was named after its inventor, mr Moncky. Stephen Fry explains that it can't be true, as articles claiming this were written in the 1880s, but the term "monkey wrench" can be dated as far back as 1807 in Britain. Unfortunately, he doesn't elaborate this further, or explain which sources he (and his QI elves) used.

  15. Peter Taylor said,

    October 21, 2015 @ 1:28 am

    @Flex, perhaps you're thinking of the claimed etymology for "brass monkeys" (cold) in terms of cannon-ball storage?

  16. Flex said,

    October 21, 2015 @ 12:19 pm

    @Peter Taylor,

    No, I'm pretty certain I'm not thinking of that legend.

    I took some time at lunch to see if I could track down my memory. I think I remember it from a blacksmith's tool known as a monkey. It's a chunk of metal with a hole in it used to square up tenons. Here's a link for that:

    I have to say that the monkey-tool looks a lot like the moving jaw on a monkey-wrench. But I can't find any reference which would suggest the monkey-wrench is related to the monkey-tool.

    I also found that the weight used for pile-driving was usually called an iron-monkey, not just a monkey. As an aside, English dictionaries from the 18th century (via Google Books), define what a pile-driver is, and use the term iron-monkey, but don't have an entry for iron-monkey. So much for their supposedly complete dictionary of the English Language, huh?

    So, for things referred to as monkeys in 18th century industry,
    we have a blacksmith tool used as a guide to square tenons.
    An iron weight held in metal guide rods as a hammer for forging.
    And an iron weight held in metal guide rods as a driver for pile-driving.

    I will say that the monkey-on-a-stick explanation doesn't really ring true to my ear. The monkey-on-a-stick toy doesn't operate like a monkey-wrench does. The monkey ratchets up and down the stick on two points of contact, and even the early monkey-wrenches used a sliding jaw mechanism with a wedge. The mechanical actions are not at all similar, even if there is a superficial resemblance in results.

    I'm not a linguist though. I'm an engineer. To me it looks like a much better explanation would be that a blacksmith wanted to make an adjustable spanner and so he took a monkey-tool, slid it onto tenon, and capped the tenon by forging it to another monkey-tool. It appears the earliest monkey-wrenches didn't use a screw, but used a wedge to hold the lower jaw in place. But again, I'm no linguist, I just like words.

    I don't know why any of these examples would use the term monkey for a piece of iron with a hole in it.

    Could there be a loan word, a word from German or French (or Old English, Norse or Swedish), which sounds close to the word monkey but refers to anything like a piece of metal with a hole in it?

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