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Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Gremlins 

Not the 1984 movie, but those stubborn bugs that cause all sorts of technological glitches. A coworker was translating an advertisement into Spanish and was having trouble with a line that talked about the "headroom" of a soundcard. Talking it over with him, we decided "range" was probably the best substitution, but I took a glance and the original. The paragraph ended with "and other gremlins" and I asked how he translated that and R--- said he just used "other problems."

That didn't seem colorful enough for me but R---, and a Brazilian coworker who shares his office, both insisted that English has a million different euphemisms that personalize or anthropomorphize or something "problems." R--- said that if he used chupacabra or some similar beastie, people would figure out what was meant, but it would sound ridiculous. El chupacabra is a specific thing, not a generic sort of problem, and Spanish (or Portuguese for that matter) doesn't blame a folkloric or mythic entity for a problem. Even when talking about bugs in a computer program, R--- said, the word "problems" would be used.

According to The American Heritage Dictionary, 4th Edition, the word gremlin first appears in the 1920s as "a Royal Air Force term for a low-ranking officer or enlisted man saddled with oppressive assignments." The word evolved from there:
Said to have been invented by members of the Royal Naval Air Service in World War I, gremlin is used in works written in the 1940s for "an imaginary gnomelike creature who causes difficulties in aircraft." The word seems likely to have been influenced by goblin, but accounts of its origin are various and none are certain. One source calls in Fremlin beer bottles to explain the word; another, the Irish Gaelic word gruaimín, "ill-humored little fellow."
The Shorter OED gives the etymology as "probably after goblin."

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