I'm trying to help out a friend with something. Is there any expression for when something has been done, but nobody knows whom by? In Dutch there is an expression which translates into "the gnomes must have done it".


There are very similar phrases in English, mostly related to various fairy tales borrowed from around the world. For instance, "The elves must have done it" is a commonly-used reference to "The Elves and the Shoemaker", which I believe is Dutch in origin and very similar to your quoted phrase. References to "your fairy godmother", "fairies", and gift-givers like Santa and the Easter Bunny also abound in English culture, even far from their traditional holidays. "Christmas in July" is a common term for an unexpected abundance, whether through generosity or providence, and it doesn't have to be in July.

On the other hand, when something bad has happened inexplicably, "gremlins" are a common scapegoat, especially in the context of complex systems such as aviation and computing.

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    There are other expressions for positive events: a "secret admirer" can leave you a note or present, "brownies" are a type of fairy that does chores but everyone knows someone is really being helpful without wanting the credit (not sure how common that is), and very jokingly, "the laundry fairy"... well that's obvious. The only other negative expression I can think of is "ghosts" as in "a ghost must have knocked that over", but I think the ghosts are scapegoats like the gremlins. – aedia λ Jun 14 '11 at 21:19
  • +1 Santa works in Dutch as well or, better, his ancestor: Aha. Dan heeft Sinterklaas die koekjes zeker opgegeten! – Cerberus_Reinstate_Monica Jun 14 '11 at 21:37

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