It's hard to say why these two tiny men have seesawed in pop-culture cachet.

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Even on St. Patrick’s Day, it seems like gnomes are gaining an edge over leprechauns.

The little green guys who got their start as Irish-folklore fairies busily storing gold coins in pots of gold used to be all over the place — advertising, movies and children’s cereal.

But now the prank-loving green men seem to have been replaced by their kinder, red-hatted cousins: the gnomes.

Historically known as earth dwellers, gnomes came into popular culture above the dirt, as garden gnomes. They found international fame with the 2001 release of “Amelie,”in which a garden gnome is spirited to far-flung locations. That, in turn, inspired Travelocity’s Roaming Gnome ad campaign. More recently, “Gnomeo and Juliet”took the gnome’s star power to a new level.

Leprechauns, as befits their mischievous history, have been shoved aside into the realm of horror in some just plain bad movies.

It’s hard to say why these two tiny men have seesawed in pop-culture cachet.

“It’s almost due to chance that some of these creatures come to the fore and some are almost forgotten,” says Anatoly Liberman, a professor of German, Scandinavian and Dutch at the University of Minnesota.

Clearly, the two are itching for a fight to see which truly belongs in the pop-culture pantheon. Let’s see how they stack up:


A point for the gnomes. For a long time, gnomes weren’t used in advertising. Who would want an earth-dwelling bearded man hawking their products? That all changed in 2004, when discount travel site Travelocity introduced its Roaming Gnome, their wildly successful salesman.

Leprechauns seem to have faded from view. The heavy-hitter, of course, is Lucky, the beleaguered trickster of General Mills’ Lucky Charms, but he’s getting old. Lucky was created in 1963 to appeal to children in TV ads and hasn’t been able to stop running from voracious cartoon kids since. (When will he ever get to rest?)


The points here go to the gnomes, which generally are seen as happy, helpful and plucky in movies. The overlooked 1967 Disney gem “The Gnome-Mobile” and 1990s “A Gnome Named Gnorm” feature kind gnomes saving the day. This year’s gnome-movie offering is Touchstone’s all-star animated comedy “Gnomeo & Juliet,”a loose, garden-centric retelling of Shakespeare.

As for the leprechauns, the truly terrible 1993 B-movie “Leprechaun”was the first in a series of six campy, ridiculous and thoroughly unhorrifying films that culminated in 2003’s straight-to-DVD release of “Leprechaun 6: Back 2 tha Hood.”


Leprechauns have the clear advantage: Notre Dame’s Fighting Irish swear by their mascot, simply named Leprechaun. He is a fixture at Notre Dame games and around campus. Notre Dame students who want to be the leprechaun have to battle through a monthlong competition that includes mock rallies, school trivia and — perhaps most important — the ability to grow the Leprechaun’s characteristic chinstrap beard.

Gnomes don’t represent any sports teams, universities or high schools. A 300-pound wooden gnome serves as the unofficial mascot at one of Yale University’s 12 colleges.


Leprechauns have the edge. They don’t have a holiday of their own, but it’s no surprise that they’ve become the unofficial mascot of St. Patrick’s Day. Revelers dress in the stereotypical green coat and trousers, red beards and buckled hat. It bears little resemblance to the leprechaun of legend, but the popularity has made him an enduring symbol.

Strictly speaking, gnomes don’t have a holiday. But there is a similar creature in Scandinavian folklore: the tomte (or tomten), a bearded little man who guards farms at night while families are asleep. He isn’t afraid to harass and possibly beat offenders. For his hard work (and to keep him happy), the tomte is rewarded with a bowl of porridge on Christmas Eve.


This category is hands down for the gnomes. Gnoming has become a pastime for pranksters looking for a bit of diversion on vacation. The gnome’s “kidnap” a gnome from a lawn and take it on vacation with them. They snap photos of the gnome in front of landmarks and take the gnome and photos back to the owner as proof of the little guy’s escape “back into the wild.”

Leprechauns, of course, have inspired the legend of the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Maybe when someone actually finds one, leprechauns will regain some of their lost cachet.