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Pronounced /ˈɡrɛmlɪn/Help with IPA

A gremlin is an imaginary mischievous sprite. Not just any sprite, but one that you feel must be responsible for that unexplained fault you have just experienced with some device, especially a mechanical or electronic one. If the car won’t start, or the computer is acting up, one may blame gremlins.

The word looks so much like the name of some immemorial archetypal being that it comes as a surprise to discover that it is not known before the early years of the last century and was in its heyday among RAF pilots in World War Two. By 1942, news of their coming had reached Newsday in the USA, which described them, one hopes tongue in cheek, as “exasperating pixies, often clad in caps, ruffled collars, tight breeches and spats, who delight in raising hell in Allied planes”. Gremlins, another report says, were “fond of drinking petrol, distracting the pilot, interfering with radio communications, and even causing the pattern of stars to distort, thereby making accurate navigation impossible”.

Roald Dahl’s first children’s book, published in 1943, was called The Gremlins: A Royal Air Force Story and he did claim to have invented the name. However, there is a lot of evidence that it was around earlier. Some trace it back to the Royal Flying Corps in World War One, others to RAF operations in India and the Middle East in the 1920s. In those days, the most common beer available in the mess was brewed by Fremlin; it is plausibly said that the name comes from a blend of this name with goblin, so a gremlin was a creature that was first viewed, you might say, through the bottom of a bottle. It explains a lot, especially those spats.

Page created 9 Nov. 2002

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World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–2014. All rights reserved.
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Last modified: 9 November 2002.