A World War II gremlin-themed industrial safety poster

A gremlin is a mischievous folkloric creature invented at the beginning of the 20th century to originally explain malfunctions in aircraft, and later in other machinery, processes, and their operators. Depictions of these creatures vary widely. Stories about them and references to them as the causes of especially inexplicable technical and mental problems of pilots were especially popular during and after World War II.[1][2]

Use of the term in the sense of a mischievous creature that sabotages aircraft first arose in Royal Air Force (RAF) slang among British pilots stationed in Malta, the Middle East, and India in the 1920s, with the earliest printed record in a poem published in the journal Aeroplane in Malta on 10 April 1929.[3][4] Later sources have sometimes claimed that the concept goes back to World War I, but there is no print evidence of this.[5][N 1]

There is evidence of earlier RAF reference in the 1920s to a lowly menial person,[6] in other words a low-ranking officer or enlisted man saddled with oppressive assignments.[2]

Aviation origins

Gremlin depicted in nose art of a Rockwell B-1 Lancer aircraft of the 28th Bomb Wing.

Although their origin is found in myths among airmen claiming that gremlins were responsible for sabotaging aircraft, the folklorist John W. Hazen states that some people derive the name from the Old English word gremian, "to vex",[5] while Carol Rose, in her book Spirits, Fairies, Leprechauns, and Goblins: An Encyclopedia, attributes the name to a portmanteau of Grimm's Fairy Tales and Fremlin Beer.[citation needed] According to Paul Quinion, it is plausible that the term is a blend of the word "goblin" with the name of the manufacturer of the most common beer available in the RAF in the 1920s, Fremlin.[1]

An early reference to the gremlin is in aviator Pauline Gower's 1938 novel The ATA: Women with Wings, where Scotland is described as "gremlin country", a mystical and rugged territory where scissor-wielding gremlins cut the wires of biplanes when unsuspecting pilots were about.[7] An article by Hubert Griffith in the servicemen's fortnightly Royal Air Force Journal dated 18 April 1942, also chronicles the appearance of gremlins,[8] although the article states the stories had been in existence for several years, with later recollections of it having been told by Battle of Britain Spitfire pilots as early as 1940.[9]

This concept of gremlins was popularized during World War II among airmen of the Royal Air Force (RAF) units,[10] in particular the men of the high-altitude Photographic Reconnaissance Units (PRU) of RAF Benson, RAF Wick and RAF St Eval. The flight crews blamed gremlins for otherwise inexplicable accidents which sometimes occurred during their flights. Gremlins were also thought at one point to have enemy sympathies, but investigations revealed that enemy aircraft had similar and equally inexplicable mechanical problems. As such, gremlins were portrayed as equal opportunity tricksters, taking no sides in the conflict, but acting out their mischief from their own self-interest.[11] In reality, the gremlins were a form of "buck passing" or deflecting blame.[11] This led John Hazen to note that "the gremlin has been looked on as new phenomenon, a product of the machine age – the age of air".[5] The concept of gremlins as a scapegoat was important to the morale of pilots according to the author and historian Marlin Bressi:

"Gremlins, while imaginary, played a very important role to the airmen of the Royal Air Force. Gremlin tales helped build morale among pilots, which, in turn, helped them repel the Luftwaffe invasion during the Battle of Britain during the summer of 1940. The war may have had a very different outcome if the R.A.F. pilots had lost their morale and allowed Germany's plans for Operation Sea Lion (the planned invasion of the U.K.) to develop. In a way, it could be argued that gremlins, troublesome as they were, ultimately helped the Allies win the war." Bressi also noted: "Morale among the R.A.F. pilots would have suffered if they pointed the finger of blame at each other. It was far better to make the scapegoat a fantastic and comical creature than another member of your own squadron."[12]

Examples of Gremlins can be seen in the IBCC Digital Archive.

Popularization by Roald Dahl

Royal Air Force pilot and author Roald Dahl flew a Hawker Hurricane during WWII which he incorporated into his 1943 children's novel The Gremlins

British author Roald Dahl is credited with getting the gremlins known outside the Royal Air Force.[13] He would have been familiar with the myth, having carried out his military service in 80 Squadron of the Royal Air Force in the Middle East. Dahl had his own experience in an accidental crash-landing in the Western Desert when he ran out of fuel. In January 1942, he was transferred to Washington, D.C. as Assistant Air attaché at the British Embassy. It was there that he wrote his first children's novel, The Gremlins, in which "Gremlins" were tiny men who lived on RAF fighters. In the same novel, Dahl called the wives of gremlins "Fifinellas", their male children "Widgets", and their female children "Flibbertigibbets". Dahl showed the finished manuscript to Sidney Bernstein, the head of the British Information Service, who came up with the idea to send it to Walt Disney.[13][N 2]

The manuscript arrived in Disney's hands in July 1942, and he considered using it as material for a live action/animated full-length feature film, offering Dahl a contract.[N 3] The film project was changed to an animated feature and entered pre-production, with characters "roughed out" and storyboards created.[14] Disney managed to have the story published in the December 1942 issue of Cosmopolitan magazine. At Dahl's urging, in early 1943, a revised version of the story, again titled The Gremlins, was published as a picture book by Random House. (It was later updated and re-published in 2006 by Dark Horse Comics).[N 4]

The 1943 publication of The Gremlins by Random House consisted of 50,000 copies, with Dahl ordering 50 copies for himself as promotional material for himself and the upcoming film, handing them out to everyone he knew, including the British ambassador in Washington Lord Halifax, and the US First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt who read it to her grandchildren.[13] The book was considered an international success with 30,000 more sold in Australia but initial efforts to reprint the book were precluded by a wartime paper shortage.[15] Reviewed in major publications, Dahl was considered a writer-of-note and his appearances in Hollywood to follow up with the film project were met with notices in Hedda Hopper's columns.[16][N 5]

The film project was reduced to an animated short and eventually cancelled in August 1943, when copyright and RAF rights could not be resolved. But thanks mainly to Disney, the story had its share of publicity, which helped in introducing the concept to a wider audience. Issues #33–41 of Walt Disney's Comics and Stories published between June 1943 and February 1944 contained a nine-episode series of short silent stories featuring a Gremlin Gus as their star. The first was drawn by Vivie Risto, and the rest of them by Walt Kelly. This served as their introduction to the comic book audience as they are human gremlins who lived in their own village as little flying human people.

While Roald Dahl was famous for making gremlins known worldwide, many returning Air Servicemen swear they saw creatures tinkering with their equipment. One crewman swore he saw one before an engine malfunction that caused his B-25 Mitchell bomber to rapidly lose altitude, forcing the aircraft to return to base. Folklorist Hazen likewise offers his own alleged eyewitness testimony of these creatures, which appeared in an academically praised and peer-reviewed publication, describing an occasion he found "a parted cable which bore obvious tooth marks in spite of the fact that the break occurred in a most inaccessible part of the plane". At this point, Hazen states he heard "a gruff voice" demand, "How many times must you be told to obey orders and not tackle jobs you aren't qualified for? – This is how it should be done." Upon which Hazen heard a "musical twang" and another cable was parted.[17]

Critics of this idea state that the stress of combat and the dizzying heights caused such hallucinations, often believed to be a coping mechanism of the mind to help explain the many problems aircraft faced whilst in combat.

Differences between Dahl versions
In The Gremlins In Sometime Never
Habitat Formerly in the prima forest and swamps of England, later in hangars (the Spandules, a different breed of Gremlins, live in clouds) In one forest in England before the Industrial Revolution then moved underground
Food source Used postage stamps Snozzberries
Social Structure Uncertain; rivalry between gremlins of different habitats; no established families Ruled by one Leader, human-like society
Intelligence Comparable to children, no clear culture of their own Fully comparable to human; read human books

In media



William Shatner and the Gremlin (far shot, not in full costume) in The Twilight Zone episode "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" (1963)




Card games

Video games

See also



  1. ^ Hazen also claims: "It was not until 1922 that anyone dared mention their name."
  2. ^ Dahl claimed that the gremlins were exclusively a Royal Air Force icon and he originated the term, but the elf-like figures had a very convoluted origin that predated his original writings.
  3. ^ Dahl was given permission by the British Air Ministry to work in Hollywood and an arrangement had been made that all proceeds from the eventual film would be split between the RAF Benevolent Fund and Dahl.[14]
  4. ^ The book had an autobiographical connection as Dahl had flown as a Hurricane fighter pilot in the RAF, and was temporarily on leave from operational flying after serious injuries sustained in a crash landing in Libya. He later returned to flying.
  5. ^ In 1950, Collins Publishing (New York) published a limited reprint of The Gremlins.
  6. ^ On the front pastedown endpaper, Sloane's book featured a sketch of an aircraft in flight, with the pilot saying, "The Gremlins will get you if you don't watch out!!" and giving a thumbs up.[24]
  7. ^ The booklet was published posthumously as Wilson had died in 1940.


  1. ^ a b gremlin on World Wide Words
  2. ^ a b gremlin in the American Heritage Dictionary
  3. ^ "gremlin". Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved: 12 October 2010.
  4. ^ Word Histories and Mysteries: From Abracadabra to Zeus. Lewisville, TX: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2004. ISBN 978-0-618-45450-1.
  5. ^ a b c Hazen 1972, p. 465.
  6. ^ "GREMLIN English Definition and Meaning". Lexico.com. Archived from the original on 27 July 2019. Retrieved 24 August 2022.
  7. ^ Merry 2010, p. 66.
  8. ^ "The Gremlin Question". Royal Air Force Journal, Number 13, 18 April 1942.
  9. ^ Laming, John. "Do You Believe In Gremlins?" Stories of 10 Squadron RAAF in Townsville, 30 December 1998. Retrieved: 12 October 2010.
  10. ^ Desmond, John. "The Gremlins Reform: An R.A.F. Fable". The New York Times, 11 April 1943. Retrieved: 12 October 2010.
  11. ^ a b Sasser 1971, p. 1094.
  12. ^ Marlin Bressi, quoted in Newburg, Anna L (12 July 2015). "All about gremlins, fifinellas and flippertygibbets". Journal of the Bizarre. Archived from the original on 11 February 2020. Retrieved 25 May 2015.
  13. ^ a b c Donald 2008, p. 147.
  14. ^ a b Conant 2008, p. 43.
  15. ^ Sturrock 2010, p. 188.
  16. ^ Conant 2008, pp. 43–46.
  17. ^ Hazen 1972, p. 466.
  18. ^ Merrie Melodies: Falling Hare at Internet Archive Movie Archive (The film is now in public domain) Archived 22 July 2010 at the Wayback Machine
  19. ^ "The Twilight Zone" TV series at IMDb Edit this at Wikidata
  20. ^ "The Twilight Zone" movie at IMDb Edit this at Wikidata
  21. ^ Smith 2010, p. 218.
  22. ^ Ceiling Unlimited – "Gremlins" at the Paley Center for Media; retrieved 28 May 2012
  23. ^ "مسلسل (تمانية) - الحلقة الأولى - الرحلة". Retrieved 13 January 2022 – via YouTube.
  24. ^ a b Sloane, Eric. Gremlin Americanus: A Scrap Book Collection of Gremlins. New York, B.F. Jay & Co., 1944, 1943, First edition 1942.
  25. ^ Wilson, Herbert Wrigley (H.W.). R. A. F. Book of the Season: Ssh! Gremlins by H.W. London: H. W. John Crowther Publication, 1942.