Word of the Day


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a small imaginary creature that people blame when they have problems with machines

Origin and usage

The origin of the word gremlin is uncertain. It may be an alteration of ‘goblin’, a mischievous creature in children’s stories. Gremlin is first recorded in the 1920s as a piece of RAF slang but was popularized by the 1943 book Gremlins by the children’s author Roald Dahl, who probably heard and used the word in his time as a fighter pilot.


Christmas and New Year are behind us and the decorations have been taken down. As a child I was told that if the decorations were left up after Twelfth Night they would attract gremlins, who would hide in them and cause mischief throughout the coming year. This mischief-making quality is reflected in the Macmillan Dictionary definition for the word, which attributes problems with machines to a small malign creature. This idea links back directly to the stories circulating among early pilots that malign little creatures called gremlins would fly around looking for aircraft in difficulty and snip the wires, causing them to crash. The 1984 comedy horror film Gremlins tells of the inadvertent release of a horde of malicious little green monsters who cause havoc in a small town.


“I get stage fright and gremlins in my head saying: ‘You’re going to forget your lines’.”
(Alan Rickman)

Related words

goblin, hobgoblin

View the full definition in the Macmillan Dictionary.

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Macmillan Dictionary

Macmillan Dictionary

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