Ever wonder how the monkey wrench, Phillips-head screwdriver and bastard file got their names? In a twist on our series highlighting the stories behind famous names in classic automobiles, this month we take a look at the back stories behind the tools home mechanics use in their garages everyday.
The bastard file is a tool most of us probably have in our toolboxes. But have you ever wondered about the “coarse” nature of its name? The name’s origin has two primary explanations:
The first, and possibly most common, is that the file’s coarseness is of a non-standard or, you could say, illegitimate, type. Its teeth are somewhere between a coarse and fine cut.
The second and more entertaining explanation has to do with knights and swords. In the middle ages, knights of an illegitimate birth adorned shields with a diagonal stripe to indicate their out-of-wedlock birth. Files were common tools used by the blacksmiths crafting swords for the knights, and it’s believed that the cut of the file matched the diagonal mark of the shields and thus the term bastard was applied to the files used.
Despite its brash moniker, this tool has a very mundane explanation. Dikes (another name for general-purpose wire cutters), most likely derives its nickname from a blend of the term “diagonal cutters.” Also known as “side cutters” and “diags,” these handy pliers have been an electrician’s best friend and led to an even more provocative idiom: “When in doubt, dike it out.”
The origin of this adjustable wrench’s famous nickname is about as precise as the tool. The most common explanation for the moniker is that it is derived from the name given to the person most likely to use this type of wrench – the “grease monkey”—a potentially unskilled mechanic adept at using imprecise tools.
However, the use of the moniker for an “agricultural wrench” (as it is also known) was in fact recorded long before the shade-tree mechanic was likened to an ape. The second and most plausible source for the name comes from accounts of the wrench’s inventor, Charles Monckey.
It’s said that Monckey invented the wrench around 1858, but the verdict is still out. Some sources cite the use of the term Monckey prior to 1858, and little seems to substantiate arguments for Monckey’s creation of the tool. Here is to hoping that historians will someday quit monkeying around and find the origin.
If you were interested in having your name perpetuated indefinitely in history, an effective method would be to invent a tool and attach your name to it. The Vernier caliper is another tool named after a person. This time, however, the tool’s inventor didn’t receive credit but instead the mathematician who developed the scale used on the caliper.
French mathematician, Pierre Vernier, took his inspiration from a scale that traces its history back to 1931 and the Chinese Xin Dynasty. If you have measured anything in a machine shop or while wrenching in your garage, chances are you have squinted carefully at a Vernier scale; it is found on many measuring devices including the micrometer.
An interesting bit of etymological trivia: in France, they do not refer to the caliper after their home-team mathematician but instead by a more literal name: pied à coulisse or (in English) sliding-foot.
The Phillips screwdriver derives its name from the fasteners it was created to tighten or loosen. In 1933, John P. Thompson was granted a patent for a new screw-drive system featuring a recessed cruciform, or cross on its head. That same year, Henry F. Phillips formed the Phillips Screw Company and joined with Thompson to market the new invention to the masses. It wasn’t until 1936 that the patent was approved and the Phillips crosshead screw was adopted by many industries. Thus, the Phillips screwdriver came into the vernacular of the American mechanic.