Faithful reader Cameron directed me to a quotation from an article on MLB.com by Anthony Castrovince (the MLB standing for Major League Baseball):
“Wakefield was a dependable eater of innings who annoyed opponents — not just on the days he pitched, but the day after, for a knuckleballer serves as quite the spanner in the works.”
(Translation, for non-American readers: Tim Wakefield is a pitcher who specializes in a rather unusual, fluttering pitch called the knuckleball. Wakefield himself, while he doesn’t produce spectacular results, has the ability to get his team fairly deep in the game without giving up too many runs: that is, “eat innings.” It is a general truth that, if a team faces a knuckleballer one day, its batters don’t do very well against a conventional pitcher the next day.)
I categorize spanner, meaning wrench (the tool) as a Doobious NOOB–that is, it is never found here–and spanner in the works as an outlier. The OED finds the first use of the latter in P.G. Wodehouse’s 1934 Right Ho, Jeeves: “He should have had sense enough to see that he was throwing a spanner into the works.”
I believe the expression will never achieve wide circulation here–will be used only, as Mr. Castrovince does, as a self-conscious exoticism–because we have a synonymous and, arguably, more adaptable and expressive counterpart: throw a monkey wrench in or into, which can be followed by works, plans, operation, or anything else. The OED reports a use of this by the Chicago Tribune back in 1907: “It should look to them as if he were throwing a monkeywrench into the only market by visiting that Cincinnati circus upon the devoted heads of Kentucky’s best customers.”
When Cameron brought up spanner in the works, it rang a vague bell, originating, I realized, in the title of a 1995 Rod Stewart album. I’d never known what this meant, and so categorized it with similarly mystifying British record names, like “Tea for the Tillerman,” “John Barleycorn Is Dead,” and “Thick as a Brick.” When I mentioned the expression to my wife, she reminded me that John Lennon’s 1965 book was titled A Spaniard in the Works. I had never before gotten the play on words. Good one, John.