It's clear that the term Gremlin came into use during the early 20th century, even though earlier lore about the broad category of fairies includes beings with particular affinities for technology, making, and handicrafts. And it looks like the term arose somewhere in the community of British military pilots and/or those with ties to that community. The term seems first to have appeared in print in an April 1929 number of Aeroplane published in Malta.
At first, gremlins concentrated their activities on aircraft, breaking components, interfering with good operations of vital systems, altering the equilibrium of aircraft in flight, and beglamouring or distracting the awareness of air crew. Later, gremlins extended their activities into a host of different technologies, so that we may talk about gremlins afflicting trains, bicycles, cars, ships, computers, and devices using a variety of other technologies.
Later, during WWII, the term and the notion of gremlins was disseminated widely through popular culture mass media. Roald Dahl, having heard of gremlins during his early R.A.F. war service, wrote a children's story, The Gremlins. Dahl tells of gremlins appearing first during the Battle of Britain, but clearly some pilots knew of gremlins years before then,
The full text of Dahl's story with the accompanying Disney Studios artwork is available online at Roald Dahl Fans.com:
In 2006, Dark Horse Books reprinted the book. More books featuring the Dahl/Disney gremlins are on the way.
That story led to cartoon art from the Walt Disney studio, including a variety of unit insignia designs. For example, the Minnesota Civil Air Patrol had a Disney deigned patch with a gremlin as their mascot. So did the Women Airforce Service Pilots, whose patch featured the female gremlin mascot,fifinella.
In addition, Warner Bros studio produced well-known animated cartoons featuring gremlins. Both Falling Hare (1943) and Russian Rhapsody (1944) were produced by Bob Clampett. I probably first learned of gremlins when I saw these cartoons on TV.
Plus, the large and active military organizations of WWII undoubtedly developed or elaborated lots of organization/office folklore all on their own. Look at the efflorescence of aircraft nose art during this period. And this Royal Air Force Journal article The Gremlin Question by Hubert Griffith provides plenty of information about gremlins, including a poem filled with details.
About the possible origins of the term, The Online Etymological Dictionary offers:
"small imaginary creature blamed for mechanical failures," oral use in R.A.F. aviators' slang from Malta, Middle East and India said to date to 1923. First printed use perhaps in poem in journal "Aeroplane" April 10, 1929; certainly in use by 1941, and popularized in World War II and picked up by Americans (e.g. "New York Times" Magazine April 11, 1943). Possibly from a dial. survival of O.E. gremman "to anger, vex" + -lin of goblin; or from Ir. gruaimin "bad-tempered little fellow." Surfer slang for "young surfer, beach trouble-maker" is from 1961.
--The Online Etymology Dictionary
Lycos iq offers:
Although today's word first emerged during World War II, evidence suggests a predecessor was in circulation among the RAF 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. No one has proposed a more convincing or authoritative explanation.
--at Lycosiq beta
Alternatively, there's a story that the airman who came up with gremlins was drinking Fremlin beer and reading, (or at least thinking about, if he was flying) Grimm's Fairy Tales at the time.
--Jacqueline Simpson, personal communication
Yes, this Lyco iq origin is persuasive, not conclusive. There is a rare English surname, Fremlin. They were brewers before and during WWII. According to The Directory of UK Real Ale Breweries, Fremlins Ltd was located in Maidstone, Kent.
This page from the Royal Engineers 37 Armoured Squadron web site provides some photos of the Fremlins Brewery building, beer labels, and coasters. Fremlins featured an elephant called Noddy in its graphics. To my eye, there's nothing about the graphics that would inspire gremlins as they're described.
Coining a new term by combining part of one that rhymes with the corresponding part of the other and maintaining the second word part is typical, a portmanteau word. Frem shifts to Grem, keeping the lin. (Or Grimm shifts to grem.)
Interestingly, gremlin inspired another portmanteau word which has itself become recognized in popular culture--Femlin.
The Femlin is a character used on the Party Jokes page of Playboy magazine.
Femlins were created by LeRoy Neiman in 1955 when publisher/editor Hugh Hefner decided the Party Jokes page needed a visual element. The name is a portmanteau of "female" and "gremlin." They are portrayed as mischievous black and white female sprites, apparently ten to twelve inches tall, wearing only opera gloves, stockings and heels. They are usually drawn in two or three panel vignettes, interacting with various life-sized items such as shoes, jewelry, neckties, and so forth.
Femlins have appeared on the Party Jokes page in every issue since their creation, and were featured on the magazine's cover numerous times, either as drawn by Neiman or in photographed tableaus which utilized sculpted clay models
So what have I got here?
Gremlins were first recognized by name early in the 20th Century by British airmen as unusual beings who did things to hinder aircraft operations and flight. The term may have come from an Old English dialect survival or an Irish word. Or the term may have been coined as a portmanteau word tying together the name of a popular brewery and a diminutive. (For no particular reason, except that I like good beers, I favor this origin story.)
The functions that gremlins perform, however, involving handicrafts, technology, and trick-playing reach back further into old lore. Elves, pixies, sprites, dwarves, goblins, imps, and other mythological beings took an interest in human technologies and makings. So while gremlins fiddling with aircraft strikes us as a new activity, maybe its more our human new activity that called forth the gremlins and gave us that term. And a little later, a popcult term for a sexy magazine mascot.
Maybe gremlins are beings we earlier called other names.
A tip of the beret to The Academic Study of Magic list for sharing some gremlin lore!
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