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11 Miniature Mischief-Makers From World Folklore

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Humans have always looked for an excuse when something goes wrong, and traditionally, mythical creatures have often provided the perfect scapegoat. The milk has curdled? Must be a brownie. Tools gone missing? Blame the knockers. Someone drank all your wine? Cellar must be infested with clurichauns.

Folklore around the world provides us with a host of these small fairy-like creatures, frequently treading a fine line between the malevolent and benevolent, and worryingly quick to take offense. So next time you break a vase or lose your keys, here are a sampling of miniature mischief-makers to take the blame.


Brownies are small, usually helpful spirits originating in Scotland and northern England. They are generally male and reside in the house carrying out useful household tasks such as churning butter or polishing floors. Brownies are either clad in rags or naked, and some folktales say that if you offer clothes to a brownie they will leave your home, either because they now have nice new clothes or because they are affronted by the gift.

Be warned, however: Brownies are quick to anger, and if you irritate a brownie you may live to regret it, as these once-helpful household friends can turn into boggarts. Boggarts are brownies gone bad—they break things, throw things, and are generally terrible house guests.


Cornwall, one location of the knockers. Image credit: iStock

Knockers are small, mostly benevolent creatures said to inhabit the tin mines of Cornwall; Welsh miners had a similar character known as the coblynau. Some think the myth developed from the strange knocking sounds miners heard while down the mine, the mysterious noises being attributed to the dwarf-like creatures thought to inhabit the subterranean world.

Many believed the knockers were helpful, alerting miners to rich seams of ore or warning them away from areas liable to collapse. But like most fairy folk, the knockers were also seen as keen pranksters and blamed every time a piece of equipment went missing or someone got lost down the mine. To appease the knockers, miners would leave food offerings on the floors of the mine and ensured they always spoke respectfully of the little creatures, so as to not provoke their ire.

During the California gold rush Cornish miners were in high demand due to their excellent mining skills, and as a result these legendary creatures spread to the United States, where they were often called TommyKnockers.


Trow are described as small, ugly, deformed creatures sometimes invisible to humans. At night the trow were thought to break into houses to warm themselves around the fire, while the terrified inhabitants cowered in their beds waiting for them to leave. In some folklore the trow were said to live in the ancient mounds called howes found across Orkney and Shetland; here they had lavish underground homes, where they hosted parties and sometimes kidnapped hapless humans who were forced to play endless jigs while the trow danced all night long. Trow also delight in causing mischief and so were generally blamed when the milk or ale went sour or something got lost; however, if a human managed to find an item belonging to a trow it was said to bestow its good luck on them.


A kobold by Willy Pogány via Wikipeda //  Public Domain

Kobolds are pointy-eared goblins found in German folklore. Rather like brownies, they are household sprites, making their homes in your home. Treat a kobold right and they will help out with chores, but annoy one (and let’s face it, most of these small folk are quite easily annoyed) and they will turn to mischief—toppling people over, hiding stuff, and generally causing trouble.

In German mythology there are three types of kobold: the household goblin, the kobold that inhabits mines (like the Cornish knocker), and a sea-faring kobold who lives aboard ships helping out with chores or causing mischief depending on his mood. Due to their unpredictable nature, the kobolds were often seen as undesirable house guests or bad omens—and is it any wonder when certain myths tell of angry kobolds chopping up the kitchen boy and adding him to the cooking pot?


Pixies (or piskys) are the classic miniature mischief-makers of English folklore. More commonly found in the West Country (Devon and Cornwall), pixies are said to be very small spirits, who wear natural colors such as greens and browns. Pixies love to play pranks and cause trouble and were traditionally blamed for all sorts of minor upsets, such as a blown-out candle, mysterious tapping, or an item getting lost. Pixies were said to be the scourge of travelers, as they have a habit of leading people astray, leaving them lost and disoriented. This gave rise to the word pixie-led, or pixilated, meaning bewildered or befuddled.


Leprechauns are probably the most famous mischievous fairy folk, instantly recognizable by their red hair and beards, smart emerald-green suits, and quick-witted Irish charm. The word leprechaun is likely derived from the old Irish word Lú Chorpain, meaning small body, and is also associated with the Irish word for shoe maker—leath bhrógan (the creatures are frequently depicted as cobblers).

Stories of leprechauns have existed for hundreds of years, and human obsession with the devious little creatures has probably been stoked by tales of their legendary pots of gold. Many of the myths surrounding the leprechauns revolve around stories of a human’s greedy and avaricious nature, which the leprechauns expose. A typical story involves a man capturing a leprechaun and demanding to know where his pot of gold is buried. The leprechaun then indicates the tree, and the man ties a red handkerchief on the tree so he might return with a shovel. However, when the man returns he discovers the wily leprechaun has tied red handkerchiefs to all the surrounding trees, thus protecting his gold from discovery.


Like their fairy cousins the leprechauns, clurichauns are small red-headed chaps in smartly turned-out suits, but these sprites are the wild child of folklore, and love to get roaring drunk. Clurichauns inhabit wine cellars, and as their ruddy complexion attests, spend most of their time sampling the contents of the hapless publican's or homeowner’s alcohol store. However, if you keep your clurichaun happy (by keeping your wine cellar well-stocked), he will protect your wine casks from leaks; annoy him, however, and soon all your wine will go bad and chaos will descend. Clurichauns love nothing better than a jolly good party and after a drink or three will often strike up a rousing rendition of an Irish folk song while riding around your house on the pet dog—what could be more charming?


Duendes are small elf-like creatures originally from Iberian folklore, a tradition that later migrated to South America. Notably, they have no thumbs. They have been known to be both good and bad, but all duendes are prone to mischief-making and will exact revenge if they feel they have been wronged. Across the Spanish-speaking world, many parents use tales of the duende stealing naughty children to encourage their offspring to behave. Like many goblins, duende like to skulk in dark corners of bedrooms or under beds, and be warned if you like to sleep with your feet outside the covers—they have been known to accidentally take off a toe or two when trying to trim the unkempt toenails of unsuspecting children.


Dokkaebi are Korean goblins that come in many guises. They are created when a discarded household item, such as a broom or a wooden spoon, gains a spirit and becomes animate. Dokkaebi are said to be ugly and troll-like in appearance and some have just one leg. Keen tricksters, they enjoy taunting humans, using their powers of persuasion to convince people to carry out pointless tasks like wrestling all night long. These Korean goblins can also shape-shift, and some tales tell of them transforming into a beautiful woman in order to seduce guileless men. Some dokkabei possess a magic club that allows them to summon any item they like, but whenever they magically summon something, it disappears from its original home.


Boroboro-Tonas depicted by Toriyama Sekien via Wikipedia // Public Domain

Like the Korean dokkaebi, Japanese tsukumogami are possessed household objects. Tradition has it that any tool over 100 years old may become animated with a soul and come to life. Every year on the Japanese New Year, people toss out their old tools. Unfortunately the discarded tools are pretty bitter about being thrown away after all their hard work, and so return to their homes to wreak havoc.

The tsukumogami come in numerous forms, with many tales telling of their exploits. One especially fearsome tsukumogami is Boroboro-Ton, a tattered old futon that comes to life and attempts to suffocate any human who dares sleep upon it by wrapping its raggedy form around them. In order to try and prevent old objects transforming into malicious tsukumogami, some people take them to the temple to be burned in the hope that they will move happily on to the afterlife.


Lutins originate in French folklore and have spread with French settlers to areas such as Quebec and Cajun territory. Lutins are hobgoblins whose main role in life is to cause strife for humans. They carry out all the usual fairy tricks, like making food go bad and stealing things, but their unique skill is hair-related mischief. Lutins love to create knots in the hair of horses or people and have been known to cut off the hair from unsuspecting sleeping humans. Some lutins have special magical objects such as a hat which bestows the power of invisibility, a very handy tool when playing pranks. But fear not, the naughty lutin can be frightened off with a thankfully plentiful resource—a liberal sprinkling of salt.

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Mabel Livingstone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
12 Surprising Facts About Bela Lugosi
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Mabel Livingstone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

On October 20, 1882—135 years ago today—one of the world's most gifted performers was born. In his heyday, Bela Lugosi was hailed as the undisputed king of horror. Eighty-five years after he first donned a vampire’s cape, Lugosi's take on Count Dracula is still widely hailed as the definitive portrayal of the legendary fiend. But who was the man behind the monster?


To the chagrin of his biographers, the details concerning Bela Lugosi’s youth have been clouded in mystery. (In a 1929 interview, he straight-up admitted “for purposes of simplification, I have always thought it better to tell [lies] about the early years of my life.”) That said, we do know that he was born as Béla Ferenc Dezső Blaskó on October 20, 1882 in Lugoj, Hungary (now part of Romania). We also know that his professional stage debut came at some point in either 1901 or 1902. By 1903, Lugosi had begun to find steady work with traveling theater companies, through which he took part in operas, operettas, and stage plays. In 1913, Lugosi caught a major break when the most prestigious performing arts venue in his native country—the Budapest-based National Theater of Hungary—cast him in no less than 34 shows. Most of the characters that he played there were small Shakespearean roles such as Rosencrantz in Hamlet and Sir Walter Herbert in Richard III.


The so-called war to end all wars put Lugosi’s dramatic aspirations on hold. Although being a member of the National Theater exempted him from military service, he voluntarily enlisted in the Austro-Hungarian Army in 1914. Over the next year and a half, he fought against Russian forces as a lieutenant with the 43rd Royal Hungarian Infantry. While serving in the Carpathian mountains, Lugosi was wounded on three separate occasions. Upon healing from his injuries, he left the armed forces in 1916 and gratefully resumed his work with the National Theater.


In December 1920, Lugosi boarded a cargo boat and emigrated to the United States. Two years later, audiences on the Great White Way got their first look at this charismatic stage veteran. Lugosi was cast as Fernando—a suave, Latin lover—in the 1922 Broadway stage play The Red Poppy. At the time, his grasp of the English language was practically nonexistent. Undaunted, Lugosi went over all of his lines with a tutor. Although he couldn’t comprehend their meaning, the actor managed to memorize and phonetically reproduce every single syllable that he was supposed to deliver on stage.


The year 1927 saw Bela Lugosi sink his teeth into the role of a lifetime. A play based on the novel Dracula by Bram Stoker had opened in London in 1924. Sensing its potential, Horace Liveright, an American producer, decided to create an U.S. version of the show. Over the summer of 1927, Lugosi was cast as the blood-sucking Count Dracula. For him, the part represented a real challenge. In Lugosi’s own words, “It was a complete change from the usual romantic characters I was playing, but it was a success.” It certainly was. Enhanced by his presence, the American Dracula remained on Broadway for a full year, then spent two years touring the country.

Impressed by its box office prowess, Universal decided to adapt the show into a major motion picture in 1930. Horror fans might be surprised to learn that when the studio began the process of casting this movie’s vampiric villain, Lugosi was not their first choice. At the time, Lugosi was still a relative unknown, which made director Tod Browning more than a little hesitant to offer him the job. A number of established actors were all considered before the man who’d played Dracula on Broadway was tapped to immortalize his biting performance on film.


The recent Twilight phenomenon is not without historical precedent. Lugosi estimated that, while he was playing the Count on Broadway, more than 97 percent of the fan letters he received were penned by female admirers. A 1932 Universal press book quotes him as saying, “When I was on the stage in Dracula, my audiences were composed mostly of women.” Moreover, Lugosi contended that most of the men who’d attended his show had merely been dragged there by female companions.   


Released in 1931, Dracula quickly became one of the year's biggest hits for Universal (some film historians even argue that the movie single-handedly rescued the ailing studio from bankruptcy). Furthermore, its astronomical success transformed Lugosi into a household name for the first time in his career. Regrettably for him, though, he’d soon miss the chance to star in another smash. Pleased by Dracula’s box office showing, Universal green-lit a new cinematic adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Lugosi seemed like the natural choice to play the monster, but because the poor brute had few lines and would be caked in layers of thick makeup, the actor rejected the job offer. As far as Lugosi was concerned, the character was better suited for some “half-wit extra” than a serious actor. Once the superstar tossed Frankenstein aside, the part was given to a little-known actor named Boris Karloff.

Moviegoers eventually did get to see Lugosi play the bolt-necked corpse in the 1943 cult classic Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. According to some sources, he strongly detested the guttural scream that the script forced him to emit at regular intervals. “That yell is the worst thing about the part. You feel like a big jerk every time you do it!” Lugosi allegedly complained.


It’s often reported that the two horror icons were embittered rivals. In reality, however, Karloff and Lugosi seemed to have harbored some mutual respect—and perhaps even affection for one another. The dynamic duo co-starred in five films together, the first of which was 1934’s The Black Cat; Karloff claimed that, on set, Lugosi was “Suspicious of tricks, fearful of what he regarded as scene stealing. Later on, when he realized I didn’t go in for such nonsense, we became friends.” During one of their later collaborations, Lugosi told the press “we laughed over my sad mistake and his good fortune as Frankenstein is concerned.”

That being said, Lugosi probably didn’t appreciate the fact that in every single film which featured both actors, Karloff got top billing. Also, he once privately remarked, “If it hadn’t been for Boris Karloff, I could have had a corner on the horror market.”


In 1935, Lugosi was named Honorary President of the Los Angeles Soccer League. An avid fan, he was regularly seen at Loyola Stadium, where he’d occasionally kick off the first ball during games held there. Also, on top of donating funds to certain Hungarian teams, Lugosi helped finance the Los Angeles Magyar soccer club. When the team won a state championship in 1935, one newspaper wrote that the players were “headed back to Dracula’s castle with the state cup.” [PDF]


Lugosi's fourth wife, Lillian Arch, claimed that Lugosi maintained a collection of more than 150,000 stamps. Once, on a 1944 trip to Boston, he told the press that he intended to visit all 18 of the city's resident philately dealers. “Stamp collecting,” Lugosi declared, “is a hobby which may cost you as much as 10 percent of your investment. You can always sell your stamps with not more than a 10 percent loss. Sometimes, you can even make money.” Fittingly enough, the image of Lugosi’s iconic Dracula appeared on a commemorative stamp issued by the post office in 1997.


The role of Count Dracula in this 1948 blockbuster was nearly given to Ian Keith—who was considered for the same role in the 1931 Dracula movie. Being a good sport, Lugosi helped promote the horror-comedy by making a special guest appearance on The Abbott and Costello Show. While playing himself in one memorable sketch, the famed actor claimed to eat rattlesnake burgers for dinner and “shrouded wheat” for breakfast.


Toward the end of his life, Lugosi worked on three ultra-low-budget science fiction pictures with Ed Wood, a man who’s been posthumously embraced as the worst director of all time. In the 1953 transvestite picture Glen or Glenda?, Lugosi plays a cryptic narrator who offers such random and unsolicited bits of advice as “Beware of the big, green dragon who sits on your doorstep.” Then came 1955’s Bride of the Monster, in which Lugosi played a mad scientist who ends up doing battle with a (suspiciously limp) giant octopus.

Before long, Wood had cooked up around half a dozen concepts for new films, all starring Lugosi. At some point in the spring of 1956, the director shot some quick footage of the actor wandering around a suburban neighborhood, clad in a baggy cloak. This proved to be the last time that the star would ever appear on film. Lugosi died of a heart attack on August 16, 1956;  he was 73 years old.

Three years after Lugosi's passing, this footage was spliced into a cult classic that Wood came to regard as his “pride and joy.” Plan 9 From Outer Space tells the twisted tale of extraterrestrial environmentalists who turn newly-deceased human beings into murderous zombies. Since Lugosi could obviously no longer play his character, Wood hired a stand-in for some additional scenes. Unfortunately, the man who was given this job—California chiropractor Tom Mason—was several inches taller than Lugosi. In an attempt to hide the height difference, Wood instructed Mason to constantly hunch over. Also, Mason always kept his face hidden behind a cloak.


Although Lugosi resented the years of typecasting that followed his breakout performance in Dracula, he asked to be laid to rest wearing the Count’s signature garment. Lugosi was buried under a simple tombstone at California's Holy Cross Cemetery.

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The First Known Uses of 6 Common Typographic Symbols
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Many of the most common symbols on our keyboards have fascinating origin stories. Some, such as the zero, we now take for granted—yet the idea of denoting an absence of value was not present in Western mathematics until introduced from the East. Other symbols, such as the hashtag or at-sign, had a variety of uses until the internet ushered in a new way of communicating and fixed them with the meanings we know today. Below are six examples of the first known usage and subsequent history of some of the most common typographic symbols.

1. AT SIGN // @

The @ (or at-sign) is usually dated to 1536 in a letter from a Florentine merchant, Francesco Lapi, who used it to mean a unit of wine called “amphorae.” But a Spanish researcher claims to have found an even earlier usage in a 1448 document, where the symbol also referred to a unit of measurement (even today, Spaniards call the @ symbol arroba, which is also a unit of weight, and some other Romance languages have similar dual meanings). Either way, the researchers think that the symbol then moved to Northern Europe, where it eventually gained the meaning of “at the price.” Other explanations have also been offered, but whatever the exact root of the symbol, its meaning eventually became known as shorthand for at, and it was generally used in written financial transactions—for example, in noting “Bob sells James 4 apples @ $1.”

The sign had largely fallen out of use by the early 1970s, when computer scientist Ray Tomlinson was working at what is now BBN Technologies, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Tomlinson, who was working for the government on a forerunner of the internet, was trying to figure out how to address messages sent from one computer to another when he noticed the little-used @ on his computer keyboard, and used it to send a prototype email. This precedent was soon adopted as the internet developed, and the at-sign is now, of course, central to our lives.

2. ZERO // 0

The absence of a value is a complex concept, one that many ancient civilizations struggled with. The idea of a zero ultimately came to the West from the mathematicians of India, where, as in a few other cultures, zero was initially used as a placeholder, for example to indicate a lack of units, as in the number 101.

The earliest surviving usage of a zero in India has been traced to an ancient mathematical text known as the Bakhshali manuscript, which is held at Oxford’s Bodleian Library. In September 2017, radiocarbon dating indicated that the manuscript was produced as early as the 3rd or 4th century—providing us with the first known usage of zero some 500 years earlier than previously thought. As Oxford’s Bodleian Library says, “the symbol in the Bakhshali manuscript is particularly significant for two reasons. Firstly, it is this dot that evolved to have a hollow centre and became the symbol that we use as zero today. Secondly, it was only in India that this zero developed into a number in its own right, hence creating the concept and the number zero that we understand today."

The manuscript itself was discovered buried in a field in 1881 in what is today Pakistan. Written on 70 delicate leaves of birch bark, historians think it represents a training manual for Silk Road traders, teaching them concepts of arithmetic.

3. HASHTAG // #

Hashtag on an old typewriter key

The origin of the hashtag (or pound sign as it's traditionally known in the U.S.) comes from scribes writing shorthand for the Latin libra pondo, which translates as "pound by weight." The abbreviation they used was lb, which was sometimes misread as 16. So, scribes took to drawing a line through the top of the two letters, which over time developed into the now familiar #. In the 1960s, the pound sign was chosen by Bell Laboratories to be a function key on their newly designed telephone keypad. (The Bell Labs team fondly nicknamed the symbol the “octothorpe,” possibly in honor of athlete Jim Thorpe.) Fast-forward to 2007, when early Twitter users wanted to be able to group and filter their feeds, so developer Chris Messina suggested they appropriate the method used in IRC (Internet Relay Chat) whereby users employed the pound sign or "hashtag" to signpost what they were chatting about. (Programmers knew the symbol as the hash, which was now being used to "tag" content.) This simple method soon caught on, and today the hashtag has become indelibly linked to the rise of social media.

4. ELLIPSIS // …

Originally, periods of silence were marked textually with a series of hyphens, but today the symbol of choice is the , a.k.a. the ellipsis. Dr. Anne Toner of Cambridge University spent years researching the ellipsis and finally discovered what she thinks is its first use—an English translation of Roman dramatist Terence’s play Andria printed in 1588. Although the play used hyphens instead of dots, the general idea caught on rapidly. (Toner notes that although there are only four “ellipses” in the 1588 translation, there are 29 in the 1627 version.) By the 18th century, dots started to replace the dashes, which an assistant professor from Southeastern University suggests may be connected to a medieval piece of punctuation called subpuncting or underdotting, which generally indicated something was incorrectly copied.


Ampersand symbol on an old metal block

The ampersand originated in Latin when the word et (meaning and) was written in cursive script as a ligature (in which one or more letters are written together as a single glyph). One of the earliest examples was found daubed in graffiti on the walls of a house in Pompeii, where it was preserved by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE. By the 8th century the ampersand became a recognizably distinct character, but the word ampersand did not come into use until the late 18th/19th century, when English school children would recite "and per se and" meaning “and by itself means and” to help remember the symbol (per se being Latin for "by itself"). One of the most thorough investigations into the typographic history of the ampersand comes courtesy of German graphic designer Jan Tschichold, who in 1953 published The am­persand: its ori­gin and de­vel­op­ment, in which he collected numerous examples of the ampersand from the 1st century onwards, visually charting its developing form.

6. PLUS SIGN // +

A variety of ceramic plus signs

The plus sign used for addition in mathematics likely derives from a shorthand ligature for the Latin et meaning “and” and was probably in use for a long time before a surviving example appeared in print. One candidate for the earliest surviving usage is in French philosopher and polymath Nicole Oresme's Algorismus proportionum, a manuscript handwritten between 1356 and 1361, although scholars debate whether it's a true plus symbol. The first use of a plus sign in a printed book is more definitive, and can be found in a 1489 edition of Johannes Widmann’s Mercantile Arithmetic. Widmann also uses the minus sign for the first time in print in this volume—although both plus and minus signs relate not to addition and subtraction but to surpluses and deficits in business accounting. After this usage, the plus sign began to appear more frequently in German mathematical texts, and first appeared in an English text in 1557 in Robert Recorde’s The Whetstone of Witte—which also introduced the equals sign.


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