ver wonder what's hanging about in the dark corners, nooks and crannies of your computer? Is some gremlin responsible for all those crashes---you know, the ones that happen when you’re trying to save that critical write up you've been working on so diligently for the past three hours? I wondered too, so I took a look to see what I could find. And guess what? When I put the computer chips under my microscope I discovered some very out of the ordinary creatures hidden there.
Silicon creatures to be exact …..and other doodling scribbled onto integrated circuits by engineers when they were designing computer chips. The tiny creatures are too small to be seen with the naked eye, but it’s plain as day that engineers designing modern computer chips have an incredibly rich sense of humor. The one I saw said peek a boo and without delay I christened him Mr Garibaldi!
Novelist Paul West writes in his review of the book The Secret Lives of Words
the “extraordinary life story” of each word. … come to us, not new-minted at the local supermarket, but hand-me-down remnants of ancient mutterings, over the centuries mauled and muddled, misused and misheard, twisted and new-fangled, yet somehow surviving their origins and incessant use. Able to use language to talk about itself, we might miss the vast story of human experience that has not only informed words – filled them with meanings – but shaped them as well.”
As a teen aged offspring of an Air Force pilot I spent some time with Dad at Base Ops
, we would do what he called a Fox Trot
which was to drive up and down the tarmac looking for rocks and debris that might gets sucked into an F-16
s engine possibly causing a catastrophe or shining big spot lights on jet engines just prior to take off, on the look-out for “gremlins.” As a little girl I entertained the idea of following in Dad’s footsteps becoming a fly girl
. At the time though women were not accepted into the Air Force as pilots so Dad fulfilled his little girls wish with the next best thing.
His job as a flight instructor gave him access to and the use of a flight simulator—I got to fly it, not once or twice but FOUR times! It was during the late 70’s and the technology was very advanced; it was more than a simple game of Pong. Yes sir! It was a vehicle on railroad tracks with an inside mock up of the cock pit and fuselage of a KC-135 Tanker.
Donning flight suits and helmets, best friend Liz and I headed for the “aircraft” cleared ourselves with the “tower” for take off. Vrooom! off we flew into the wild blue yonder pitching and yawing, fighting for control, impossible to control the rudder, our legs weren’t long enough. Line up your wings with the horizon! coached Dad. I straightened them up just in time to notice I was BELOW the horizon and CRASH ! went the simulator in wild cherry red flashes of fire and sirens shattering our confidence. Some of Dad’s students that had come along, slapped their legs and guffawed good-naturedly. We tried again; Vaaaaroooom! take off went smoothly; the wings were lined up right; smiling smugly the plane hummed along. Pretty soon Dad says, Close you eyes for a minute. Obediently we began checking for light leaks . Okay, have a looksee. says Dad and when we opened our eyes the plane was flying straight up into the stratosphere; we were heading into outer space! Simple enough to correct our confidence returned. Good job! Dad grinned , Close your eyes again. Peeking, we saw on the instruments he had done the same thing headed the plane upwards. Deftly making the corrections; struggling with the rudders trying to coordinate it with the flightstick, we were wagging our tail across the” sky”. Suddenly CRASH went the plane again; mirth, glee, wailing alarm bells, sporadic lights boomed through the cockpit. We had been tricked! Dad had not only pitched the plane upwards he had also put it in a slow spiral so when we corrected it downward the plane circled and circled until it hit the ground. Grr we were mad! Dad said, I didn’t do it! They ALL blamed it on gremlins.
Them: A couple of gremlins, Grim and Grump live in here wrecking mischief and simply refuse to go away!
uh-huh said Liz and I, suspicious of conspiracy we insisted on being shown to judge for ourselves. With Nancy Drew bravado, a great deal of intrepidation; equipped with flashlights and a number of gentlemen in flight suits for plenty of protection just in case we peered under the blue-green nightlight glow of the cock pit machinery…
Airman:Look! Did you see it?
Me: shivers and gives a little eek
Dad: Quick LOOK ! It just ran by that widget over there!
Liz: bends forward in for a closer look :NO! Where did it go?
Airman:leans over too:Well, look at That. It's an itsy gremlin. Dang, he's tiny.
Me:I don’t see anything. (skeptical) What does he look like?
Dad: He has a fancy collar, with a right smart cap, tight britches and spats.
And look! He's waving.
He's holding up a sign.
It says: "Stop staring at me.”
Liz:That’s completely out of order!
Airman: winks: I think he’s trying to tell us to bug off.
To get a sense of the lineage of gremlin as a military mechanical being one could begin by asking is there really such a thing as a widget? The Word Book Dictionary defines it as: “(1) a gadget; or (2) U.S. Air Force slang for a "small gremlin." Since one can’t help but think about "widgets" without bringing up "gadgets," "gadget" probably has its beginings from the French gachette meaning “a small piece of a lock.” A 19th century maritime term, ‘gadget" was used to imply a tiny piece of machinery or tool, particularly one for which the real name had for the moment escaped the speakers mind. Pretty much synonymous with other linguistic confirmation of frequently faulty memories a "gadget” can also be a "thingamabob" and"whatchamacallit."
It wasn’t until the 1930’s that the word widget turned up in the English meaning more or less the same thing; it might even be an alteration of the word "gadget." In fact one linguistic theorist alleges that "widget" cropped up in the Royal Navy as a contraction of "wifflow-gadget," otherwise known as a "hook-me-dingy" or "ooja-ka-piv."
Navy men who had briefly forgotten the name of a certain piece of equipment made up all those terms, like “gadget.” So what began, as a widget became a gadget? Leave it to, first the British, then the American World War I flyboys to mix widgets with gadgets and create delightful tales of gremlins.
These imaginary mischievous sprites are not just any jinx, but one that a person has to believe as responsible for some inexplicable blunder just experienced with some device, in particular a mechanical or electronic one. If the car won't start, or the computer is acting up, it is proper etiquette to blame gremlins.
While elves, goblins, and trolls have been timeless literary inventions of long ago, gremlins were created in the 20th century. In fact, it was just as recently as the 1920’s that gremlin is first documented by the Royal Air Force as a name for a “low-ranking officer or enlisted man saddled with oppressive assignments.” Other recordings of the word gremlin occur in 1941 among the writings of the Royal Air Force aviators' as slang and some dictionaries mention that it’s possibly from a dialectic combination of Old English gremman meaning “to anger, vex" plus the -lin of goblin; or maybe from the Irish Gaelic gruaimin meaning "bad-tempered little fellow."
Shades of Project Bluebook! One researcher relates that a gremlin was a:
(S)mall, pesky spirit that appeared in British aircraft during
WWI; they are generally friendly, have a great knowledge of aviation and navigation but can play mischievous pranks; many WWI pilots allege they saw them on their planes when they were flying missions but no one officially reported these sightings until 1922 (perhaps out of the belief that it is bad luck to acknowledge the spirits ...); by WWII pilots who allegedly saw them claimed (variously) that they were 6 inches high with black leather suction boots, others said they looked like a cross between a jack rabbit and a bull terrier others said they were humanoid and 1 foot tall; others that they had webbed feet with fins on the heels.
Michael Quinion of World Wide Words relates it to a popular beer brewed by the Fremlin
company that was readily available in the military mess hall, so it’s possible that the name blended with goblin
producing the gremlin who “was a creature that was first viewed, you might say, through the bottom of a bottle. It explains a lot, especially those spats
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.
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".
The existence of gremlins was well known among the members of the Royal Air Force
, and Roald Dahl
, who sent a story about them to Walt Disney, first brought them to the public’s attention. Even though there is a lot of support that the word was around a lot earlier, he did claim to have invented the name. Dahl’s Gremlins were diminutive trouble making critters who created a variety of tribulations for the RAF: bullet holes would appear in the wings of their planes that were obviously not made by German bullets! Cautioning against disasters they lent a hand the pilots, too. Because their forest homes were destroyed by an airplane factorty they had no other choice that to take up residence in the airplanes being built here. Feminine gremlins were called Fifinella
s; lads were Widget
s and lassies Flipperty-Gibbet
s. Everyone wore extraordinary boots that were handy for walking upside-down and clinging to the surface of the aircraft.
He popularized his persona about these otherwise inexplicable mechanical failures in planes with his story of the gremlins through his friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt who read Dahls’ manuscripts to her grandchildren. They were quickly bid upon by Walt Disney and a movie was made in 1942 along with an abridged version published in the magazine Cosmopolitan with the book’s publication on its heels. The book was panned; Dahl embarrassed never reprinted it and Disney by this time refused to release the film.
That same year, in another community not too far away, a Hollywood production company picked up on the gremlins by placing one into a Bugs Bunny feature. An early Warner Brothers representation of that notorious gremlin was directly based on the Kewpie Doll in a 1943 cartoon episode titled Falling Hare. Bugs Bunny is on a military base reading "Victory Thru Hare Power." As he studies about the creatures in disbelief, a gremlin gets the best of him, but all is well in the end when their crashing plane runs out of gas. By the way says, one Bug Bunny aficionado,” the gremlin was the first and possibly only entity ever to beat Bugs onscreen. “
In the world of surfing gremlin was used as a pejorative likened to a surf bum. This too had its origins from the British aircraft expression. When gremlin became an Americanism among the beach going crowds of the 1950s, it described either an inexperienced or a troublesome surfer under fifteen. Gremmies, grommets are variations. Because they wore trench coats on cold winter days, those coats were given the name gremmie coats, when the coat fashion became similar to the ankle-length Luftwaffe officers' coats in the 1960’s, gremlins became surf nazis. As perceptions have evolved; today a devotee to surfing is now called a surf bum and a surf nazi, while a gremlin is now an adept young surfer.
On October 11th in 1963, it was a very frightening gremlin that showed up in The Twilight Zone’s Nightmare at Twenty Thousand Feet starring William Shatner; two decades later in remake of the classic horror tale, Shatner's character is replaced by John Lithgow. A little bit of trivia for the 3rd Rock from the Sun fans, William Shatner appears on one Third Rock episode and makes a reference to their mutual plotlines: Shatner's character meets Lithgow's and tells him that the plane he'd flown in on had been attacked by a creature on its wing; Lithgow's character, shocked, rejoins with a gasp,
The same thing happened to me once!
In 1970, American Motors the makers of Jeeps and Ramblers; introduced America’s first sub-compact car called the Gremlin. Kind of an ironic name for a car -- a gremlin being slang for a mechanical malfunction!
Finally and probably the most notorious modern example of the gremlins was Warner Brothers’ 1984 film Gremlins about a young man who receives an unusual Christmas gift - a cute, fuzzy little critter. When he breaks the rules and feeds his cuddly little pet after midnight, it produces a wicked Gremlin. When it gets wet there are even more malevolent gremlins. From ships to planes and widgets to gadgets no matter what their origins are, by now it is certain that gremlins have taken on a life of their own.
The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Edition. 2000.
Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology. 1988.
Lesson Plans and Curriculum Sites:
Online Etymology Dictionary:
Definitions of Ghost Name: