The ghost in the carburetor.
Dear Word Detective: I was surprised to see no discussion of “gremlin” in your archives. I saw it recently in reference to unusual or bad automobile names. American Motors made a model called the Gremlin (which has the meaning of throwing a monkey wrench into things, I believe). I remember cartoons of gremlins as a child during WWII, which, I guess, dates me. — Maxwell M. Urata, MD.
Whoa, flashback. American Motors Corporation did indeed produce a car called the Gremlin, the first sub-compact auto produced in the US, from 1970 through 1978. The Gremlin, while supposedly not a bad little crate mechanically, was (in my opinion) just about the ugliest car ever made, resembling a mousy little sedan with its back end lopped off by a chain saw. It’s no wonder that in the years since its demise the Gremlin has become an iconic cultural symbol of lameness. Comic Book Guy on The Simpsons, for instance, owns a Gremlin.
Not to belabor the point, but one really must wonder what the AMC people were thinking when they named a car, already so clearly fated to elicit snickers from the public, after a creature famous for causing mechanical breakdowns. A “gremlin” is a sort of goblin for the industrial age, a mischievous supernatural creature that causes problems or failure in any sort of machine, especially airplanes. The term apparently originated as Royal Air Force slang during WWII, where mechanical problems with no known cause were chalked up to “gremlins” messing with the planes. The roots of the word “gremlin” are unknown, but one plausible suggestion traces it to the Irish “gruaimín,” which apparently means “mean-tempered little fellow.” The “lin” ending of “gremlin” probably owes a bit to “goblin” as well.
“Gremlin” percolated out of military slang as the war ended, aided by a famous children’s book written by Roald Dahl called “The Gremlins: A Royal Air Force Story,” and burrowed into popular culture. One classic 1963 episode of The Twilight Zone, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” featured a pre-Star Trek William Shatner as an airline passenger who spots an actual gremlin, looking a bit like an albino monkey, tearing up the wing of the plane (“Gremlins! Gremlins! I’m not imagining it, he’s out there! Don’t look, he’s not out there now. He jumps away whenever anyone might see him, except me.”). Gremlins were also featured in Gremlins (1984) and the inevitable Gremlins 2 (1990), two Hollywood movies that proved it’s possible to make an evil supernatural creature boring.
“Gremlin” was pressed into service among California surfers in the 1960s to mean an inexperienced surfer, and more recently among skateboarders in an equivalent sense, probably reflecting the idea of “small annoyance” more than anything really destructive. Meanwhile, computers have become the new abode of gremlins, and while software companies may blame “bugs” and issue “patches” to fix the problems, the rest of us suspect that the gremlins will always find a new way to screw things up.