I thought the article written by Charles M. Blow under the title ‘Genuflecting to the Tea party’ appearing in August 12 New York Times intriguing. He criticizes a sequence of moves of Republican Congressmen over the budget ceiling deals as the G.O.P.’s ‘obscene genuflection’ to Tea Party tenets: give no ground; take no prisoners; accept no deal.

Apart from appropriateness of the writer's view (in which I have no special interest), I was interested in the metaphor contained in the following sentence of the article:

“Luckily for the rest of us, a rash of recent polling suggests that more Americans, at least for the moment, seem to be coming around to seeing the Tea Party for what it is — not mechanics come to fix the machine, but the proverbial monkeys willing to throw a wrench into it.”

What does ‘the proverbial monkeys’ mean? Who are they? Tea Party or Republicans? If it is Tea Party (which is in singular form), it doesn’t agree with monkeys (in plural form) in number. It doesn’t matter because Tea Party is a collective noun? I don’t know. Can somebody paraphrase this section in more articulate way?

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    In Britain do they throw a spanner into the machinery?
    – GEdgar
    Commented Aug 13, 2011 at 13:51
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    @GEdgar -- I believe that they "put a spanner in the works". Commented Aug 13, 2011 at 16:11
  • @Malvolio: yup, we do. “The British: putting a spanner in your works since 1706.”
    – PLL
    Commented Aug 13, 2011 at 16:27
  • To me, monkey wrench can be proverbial because obviously there is the proverb – ‘Someone’ throws monkey wrench into work.’ But ‘monkeys’ per se as used as the subject of the above sentence doesn’t seem to be proverbial. Am I wrong? Commented Aug 15, 2011 at 9:43

4 Answers 4


First, a definition of an implied noun:

monkey wrench:
something that disrupts <threw a monkey wrench into the peace negotiations>

The "Tea Party" is a group of people, and the implication is that the group is made up of disrupters rather than the fixers that they claim to be.

You'll find that when someone deconstructs an idiom, they will often refer to the parts of it as "proverbial", as in, "taken from the proverb".

  • @Wffaulk. Thank you. How about the issue of the agreement of number between Tea Party (singular) and Monkeys (plural). As Tea Party is a collective noun, it doesn't matter? Commented Aug 13, 2011 at 6:28
  • It probably ought to say "group of mechanics" or something equivalent. I think, though, that "the ... monkeys" implies a group, and that does agree in number with "Tea Party". Maybe it could be fixed by changing "mechanics" to "the mechanics", but that might lead to a question of antecedent.
    – wfaulk
    Commented Aug 13, 2011 at 6:37
  • @wfaulk, @Yoichi: It seems fine to me as it stands. The semantic connection between a collective entity and its constituents is transparent enough that they can quite often get used in parallel or in a copula like this. Compare e.g. the (mainly BrE) habit of referring to a collective entity with a plural noun. Google "the Tea Party are morons" (or racists, or idiots, or Republicans if you’re feeling kind) for many examples of such usage. (These give a few false positives, but plenty of real examples.)
    – PLL
    Commented Aug 13, 2011 at 16:35
  • Actually, perhaps I agree with you slightly after all: the issue of plural noun vs. group doesn’t bother me, but the lack of parallelism between “mechanics” and “the … monkeys” slightly does, and also the fact that the main noun of the idiom is not the monkeys but the wrench. So I’d perhaps prefer “not mechanics… but monkeys come to throw the proverbial wrench into it”.
    – PLL
    Commented Aug 13, 2011 at 16:39
  • @PLL: Honestly, I agree with you. I was being overly pedantic.
    – wfaulk
    Commented Aug 13, 2011 at 17:31

The writing is strained, at best. Apparently he wanted to use monkeys to alliteratively parallel mechanics and butchered the idiom to do that. At the same time, there is the singular/plural dissonance you noted of Tea Party (singular, but collective) using singular construction while the detailing phrase is in plural form.

A paraphrase might be:

... seeing the Tea Party adherents for what they are — not mechanics come to fix the machine, but saboteurs wanting to throw a wrench into it.

  • You complain about butchering an idiom, and then you have saboteurs throwing wrenches?
    – wfaulk
    Commented Aug 13, 2011 at 6:29
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    Yes, I do. Saboteur comes from sabot, wooden shoe, which was being thrown into machinery in order to damage and stop it.
    – mgkrebbs
    Commented Aug 13, 2011 at 6:33
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    Right. Which are not wrenches.
    – wfaulk
    Commented Aug 13, 2011 at 6:38
  • @wfaulk: I don't understand what you are criticizing. The idiom is throw a monkey wrench into a mechanism, often shortened to throw a wrench. In neither case is the subject required to be of some particular form (since the point of the idiom is to characterize the thrower). The point of the throwing is to damage or stop a working mechanism, and saboteurs try to damage things. What is the nature of the butchering you think that paraphrase was showing?
    – mgkrebbs
    Commented Aug 13, 2011 at 6:55
  • If saboteurs are going to be throwing anything proverbial, it should be sabot. If you have saboteurs throwing wrenches, you're mixing metaphors, which, IMO, is far worse butchery than splitting the notion of a monkey wrench.
    – wfaulk
    Commented Aug 13, 2011 at 17:30

The idiom referred to is:

throw a monkey wrench in the works : Fig. to cause problems for someone's plans

I believe whoever wrote the article miswrote it, merely vaguely remembering a proverb about "a monkey, and something about a wrench", therefore, he refers to it as a proverbial monkey who threw a wrench.

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    @ Thursagan. I think I know the idiom, 'throw a monkey wrench in the work (machine)' pretty well. But ‘monkeys’ here is used as the subject of the clause, not 'a monky' nor ‘monkey wrench.’ So I thought ‘monkeys’ should represent for somebody, not modifying wrench. Commented Aug 13, 2011 at 6:15

Of course a monkey wrench is just a type of wrench.

enter image description here

The proverb alluded to here involves throwing (or accidentally dropping) a monkey wrench into the works of a machine, which causes the machine to malfunction. Now there could be another question, "Why is a monkey part of the name of this tool?"

  • My understanding is that no one knows for sure why it's called a monkey wrench. There was a theory that it was invented by one Charles Moncky, but that seems pretty discredited. My own belief is that when the head of the wrench was larger (and the actual appearance of real monkeys less familiar in the US), it was thought to vaguely resemble a monkey, with its rounded head, grinning jaws, and long tail. c.f. wingnut and cat's paw. Commented Aug 13, 2011 at 16:17
  • It's because it adjusts to the size of the nut it's so simpl even a monkey can use it. Technically that's a Stilson Wrench.
    – mgb
    Commented Aug 14, 2011 at 2:48
  • @Martin Beckett: That may be your explanation, but there is no consensus for that etymology. Also, Stilson wrenches (of which that is a picture) are not intended to be used with nuts, only pipes.
    – wfaulk
    Commented Aug 14, 2011 at 18:03

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