A hobgoblin is a mischievous, yet generally benign nature spirit, a sort of miniaturized version of an elf, goblin, or fairy, depending on the folklore involved. Myths and legends about hobgoblins vary widely, with many folklore traditions having their own distinct versions, which can sometimes be a bit confusing. For example, in some legends, hobgoblins are viewed as harmful, while in other traditions, they are supposed to be friendly guides.
The term “hobgoblin” comes from the English “Hob,” a nature spirit similar to Robin Goodfellow or Puck. The addition of “goblin” is meant to suggest that this version of the nature spirit is outstandingly ugly, as goblins are usually associated with twisted, ugly facial features. In English folklore, hobgoblins are, like Hob himself, generally harmless, but they can make a nuisance of themselves, since they enjoy practical jokes and pranks.
In German legends, the hobgoblin is a more malevolent sprite, who may harass people, lead them down the wrong path, or try to terrorize them. However, German hobgoblins retain the generally diminutive stature of their English counterparts, which is supposed to make them easier to defeat. This is not always the case, though, with some fairy tales describing hobgoblins which literally harry people to death, despite the small size of these legendary creatures.
Some people also use “hobgoblin” in the sense of something abstract which inspires fear, hatred, or dread, rather than a specific nature sprite or spirit. In this sense, a hobgoblin is like a bugbear, something which is viewed as irritating or annoying, but which lacks corporeal form. For example, there is a famous Emerson quote, “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of human minds,” which references this sense of the word.
Like many other spirits and figures in folklore, the hobgoblin has been used in a variety of ways in both historical fiction and fairy tales, and modern retellings of classical stories. Many versions of the hobgoblin have been used in these stories, thanks in part to different versions of the hobgoblin legend, and also due to confusion on the part of some authors. Further confusion has been added through poor translations of fairy tales in other languages, in which translators don't always choose the right term to describe mythical elements in these stories. This has further added to the murky waters which surround these mythical creatures.