"Gremlin"

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"Jennifer Arcuri: Boris Johnson cast me aside as if I were a gremlin", ITV News 11/17/2019:

The businesswoman at the centre of a controversy involving Prime Minister Boris Johnson says she wished he had declared their personal relationship as a potential conflict of interest to avoid her "humiliation".

In an interview with ITV's Exposure to be broadcast on Sunday evening, Jennifer Arcuri claimed Mr Johnson cast her aside as though she was a "gremlin" after she tried to contact him for advice on how to handle the media interest.

See also "Jennifer Arcuri says Boris Johnson 'cast me aside like some gremlin'", BBC News; "Jennifer Arcuri: 'I've kept Johnson's secrets – now he's cast me aside like a one-night stand'", The Guardian; "Jennifer Arcuri says Boris Johnson cast her aside like a 'gremlin'", The Irish Times.

A video clip is here — the audio and a transcript follow:

You know
that I've been nothing but loyal —
faithful, supportive
and a true confidante of yours.
I've kept your secrets and I've been your friend.
And I don't understand why
you've blocked me
and ignored me
as if I was some
fleeting one-night stand or some girl that you picked up at a bar.
Because I wasn't
and you know that.
And I'm terribly heartbroken by the way that you have cast me aside
like I am some
gremlin.

Ms. Arcuri's use of the word "gremlin" puzzled me at first. But I learned something new from the OED's entry, which is that the earliest meaning of this word was

 1. originally R.A.F. slang. In early use: a lowly or despised person; a menial, a dogsbody, a wretch (obsolete).

with a citation from 1929:

1929   Aeroplane 10 Apr. 576/1   There is a class abhorred, Loathed by all the high and mighty, Slaves who work and get but little, Little thanks for all their labour; Yet they are both skilled and many, Many men with many talents… They are but a herd of gremlins, Gremlins who do all the flying, Gremlins who do much instructing, Work shunned by the Wing Commanders.

The OED notes that this meaning evolved —

Later: a mischievous sprite imagined as the cause of mishaps to aircraft. More generally: such a creature imagined as the cause of any trouble or mischance. Hence also: an unexplained problem or fault. The concept of the gremlin was popularized, especially in the United States, by Roald Dahl, whose book The Gremlins was published in 1943.

And the Urban Dictionary entry for gremlin has some specifically misogynistic senses, which may or may not relate back to the original R.A.F. "lowly or despised person" sense, but seem to be close to what Jennifer Arcuri meant by the word — especially this one:



12 Comments

  1. mdhughes said,

    November 17, 2019 @ 10:27 am

    There's also the AMC Gremlin, which was a classically ugly, inadequate, cheap first-time-buyer car of the '70s. Whether intentionally related or not, you wouldn't keep a Gremlin around for long.

  2. Arthur waldron said,

    November 17, 2019 @ 11:25 am

    Something NKR about Boris. Not Quite Right. Navy talk

  3. Rodger C said,

    November 17, 2019 @ 12:33 pm

    "a mischievous sprite imagined as the cause of mishaps to aircraft"

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w_-rxY-4zHU

  4. Brett said,

    November 17, 2019 @ 8:15 pm

    That Urban Dictionary definition (as are some of the site's others) is a specific allusion to the gremlins from the 1984 Gremlins movie. The parts about not going out to eat late and emotional instability at night make that clear.

    Whether this definition has anything to do with the older "lowly or despised person" meaning is hard to say. It could easily be purely a reference to the film, not to anything older than that. The question is further complicated by the fact that many glosses on Urban Dictionary seem to be over-elaborated and not really representative of any real-world usage. They may be more representative of how the submitter thinks a term ought to be used, if everyone else shared his (definitely his in this case) sense of humor.

  5. Andrew Usher said,

    November 17, 2019 @ 9:00 pm

    Indeed, Urban Dictionary is about the least reliable source out there; it is only preferable to no source at all. But this woman sounds American, while the quoted meaning of 'gremlin' was British. I'd be inclined to call it a malapropism, or spur-of-the-moment coinage when she just couldn't think of the right word.

    k_over_hbarc at yahoo.com

    [(myl) I agree that the Urban Dictionary is an unreliable source. But none of the more reputable slang dictionaries that I consulted had anything relevant. And the Urban Dictionary entry is probably American, not British, given the "yo" and so on.

    In any case, the "unexplained problem or fault" meaning seems to be entirely inconsistent with Ms. Arcuri's statement, in which "some gremlin" is used in parallel with "some fleeting one-night stand or some girl that you picked up at a bar".]

  6. David L said,

    November 18, 2019 @ 10:54 am

    When I was growing up in England (60s and 70s) it was routine to say that gremlins were the reason the TV went on the blink or the washing machine stopped working. They were particularly responsible for mechanical problems that mysteriously cropped up, caused trouble, and just as mysteriously went away. Oh, must have been gremlins — meaning there was no point trying to figure out what actually happened.

    Jennifer Arcuri is indeed American but perhaps hanging out with Boris will cause a person to pick up outdated British slang. (Or maybe gremlin in this sense is not outdated in Britain).

  7. Ralph Hickok said,

    November 18, 2019 @ 9:22 pm

    When I was a kid in Wisconsin in the late 1940s, I thought of gremlins as helpful little creatures for a couple of reasons. First, I had seen a cartoon called "The Gremlins from the Kremlin" in which Russian gremlins were shown attacking a German warplane from within. Second, my parents told me that a gremlin named Yehudi turned on the refrigerator light when the door was opened.

  8. Philip said,

    November 18, 2019 @ 11:32 pm

    Marina Hyde, in the Guardian, has another take on Ms Arcuri's use of 'gremlin' (after giving the original statement):
    'Well now. If I had to zone in on the one thing I loved about the above quote, it would be: everything about the above quote. But particularly the way Jennifer graciously acknowledges this situation's debt to another classic entertainment franchise. With the gremlin reference, it feels as though she's explicitly placing her and Boris in the comedy horror genre. And, you know … likewise. Very much likewise. As the original Gremlins tagline ran: "Cute. Clever. Mischievous. Intelligent. Dangerous." '
    https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/nov/18/jennifer-arcuri-turns-johnson-heartbreak-into-comedy-horror

  9. Stan Carey said,

    November 19, 2019 @ 5:23 am

    Anatoly Liberman looked briefly (and inconclusively) at the etymology of gremlin in a discussion of goblin some years ago:
    https://blog.oup.com/2013/06/goblin-etymology-word-origin/

  10. Rodger C said,

    November 19, 2019 @ 7:54 am

    I had seen a cartoon called "The Gremlins from the Kremlin" in which Russian gremlins were shown attacking a German warplane from within.

    I saw that cartoon in the 50s and gave a link to it above. For me, a child seeing it in the first heat of the Cold War, it was a slightly confusing relic of a day when the USSR was our ally.

  11. Daniel Barkalow said,

    November 19, 2019 @ 2:58 pm

    What strikes me as particularly odd is that gremlins aren't generally something you invited in originally, nor something you'd be able to get rid of intentionally.

  12. Andrew Usher said,

    November 19, 2019 @ 6:15 pm

    David L has it exactly for me – that's how I remember 'gremlins' being used. It would seem odd to use the singular, and that would imply actually seeing them.

    In any case it doesn't seem her use could come from that meaning.

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