Printable Version
Pronunciation: grem-lin Hear it!

Part of Speech: Noun

Meaning: A mischievous sprite imagined to cause the inexplicable problems in the real and virtual machinery of technology.

Notes: Today's word sounds like an ancient player in Celtic mythology, perhaps a people in one of Tolkien's tales of ancient England. You might be surprised to know that the term is very recent, invented by the flyers of the Royal Air Force to explain otherwise inexplicable glitches in the operation of their aircraft. It was first noticed in print only in 1941. In the early 60s it was shortened to gremmy to refer to young, inexperienced surfers.

In Play: The gremlins of air space have moved into cyberspace, where they are often the only explanation of lost e-mail or other misbehavior of our Internet connections: "I received your e-mail alright, but the attachment was snatched by the gremlins of cyberspace." You must have discovered that some software applications do not perform unless you carry out an extra step that your friends and colleagues do not have to: "There is a gremlin in my computer that won't allow my browser to come up unless I hold my right ear with my left hand, close one eye, and hold down the letter "x" as I click the browser icon."

Word History: Although today's word first emerged during World War II, evidence suggests a predecessor was in circulation among the Royal Air Force a bit earlier. In the 1920s it was used to refer to anyone saddled with a menial task, but that sense never quite caught on. Charles Graves wrote in The Thin Blue Line (1941) that the word referred to goblins that clambered out of Fremlin beer bottles, a popular beer among RAF pilots in India and the Middle East before World War II. Get it? Goblin + Fremlin = gremlin. Other speculations have included an unlikely dialectal survival of Old English gremman "to anger, vex" + the -lin of goblin, or Irish gruaimin "bad-tempered little fellow". I rather like the last explanation, though there is no evidence to support it.

Dr. Goodword,

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