A recent news item about the Russian government’s attempt to increase the tax on cars brought to mind the 1975 visit to the United States by the Bolshoi Ballet of Moscow. One of the company’s principal dancers, the late Maris Liepa, wanted to buy an American car and he chose a sporty little subcompact made by AMC called a “Gremlin.” Liepa liked to boast, “I will have the only Gremlin in the Kremlin!”
So what’s a gremlin? Funny you should ask, because that happens to be the subject of this blog. The word refers to a gnome-like creature that loves to mess up things, especially on aircraft. It’s an odd name for a car, when you stop to think about it. (Not so odd, however, as Chevrolet’s compact Nova was when marketed in Mexico, where no va can mean “won’t go.”)
According to the timid and ill-informed Messrs. Merriam and Webster, gremlin was first used in 1941, and its origin is unknown. Not true! Funk & Wagnall’s folklore dictionary boldly goes where no etymologist has gone before, in speculating that gremlin derives from Old English gremian (“to anger or vex”) or from the Irish gruaimin (“bad-tempered little fellow”), conflated with the –lin from goblin, which is a 14th-century word for an ugly, grotesque and mischievous sprite. The word gremlin was popularized by the Royal Air Force possibly as early as World War I. First appearance of a gremlin in print was in a 1929 poem in the journal Aeroplane.
The goblin-like Bard of Buffalo Bayou has chosen the limerick, or perhaps you could call it a gremerick, as today’s method of assault upon your esthetic sensibility:
A gremlin, quite pleased with himself,
Courted girls with his mischief and pelf.
“Watch me throw this monkey-wrench!”
He crowed to one spunky wench,
But she upped and eloped with an elf.