They usually take the form of old men who enjoy partaking in mischief. Their trade is that of a cobbler or shoemaker. They are said to be very rich, having many treasure crocks buried during war-time. According to legend, if anyone keeps an eye fixed upon one, he cannot escape, but the moment the gaze is withdrawn, he vanishes.
There are a number of possible etymologies of the name "leprechaun". One of the most widely accepted theories is that the name comes from the Irish word leipreachán, defined by Dinneen as "a pigmy, a sprite, a leprechaun; for luchorpán"; the latter word Dinneen defines as "a pigmy, a leprechaun; 'a kind of aqueous sprite'"; this word has also been identified as meaning "half-bodied", or "small-bodied". This is the etymology given in the Collins English Dictionary.
The word which is widely believed to be the root and one of the ones quoted by the Oxford English Dictionary is luchorpán. An alternative derivation for the name and another one quoted by the Oxford English Dictionary, is leath bhrógan, meaning shoe-maker — the leprechaun is known as the fairy shoemaker of Ireland and is often portrayed working on a single shoe. Another derivation has the word "leprechaun" deriving from luch-chromain, meaning "little stooping Lugh", Lugh being the name of a leader of the Tuatha Dé Danann.
The word leprechaun was first recorded used in the English language in around 1605 in Dekker's The Honest Whore, Part 2 as lubrican. The original meaning was of some kind of spirit and not specifically associated with the Irish mythological character:
Some alternative spellings of the word leprechaun that have been used throughout the ages are; leprechawn, lepracaun and lubberkin. The word leprehaun has also been used.
Leprechauns rarely appear in what would be classed as a folk tale; in almost all cases the interest of these stories centres round a human hero. Stories about leprechauns are generally very brief and generally have local names and scenery attached to them. The tales are usually told conversationally as any other occurrence might be told, whereas there is a certain solemnity about the repetition of a folk-tale proper.
In most tales and stories leprechauns are depicted as generally harmless creatures who enjoy solitude and live in remote locations, although opinion is divided as to if they ever enjoy the company of other spirits. Although rarely seen in social situations, leprechauns are supposedly very well spoken and, if ever spoken to, could make good conversation.
Among the most popular of beliefs about leprechauns is that they are extremely wealthy and like to hide their gold in secret locations, which can only be revealed if a person were to actually capture and interrogate a leprechaun for its money.
By nature, leprechauns are said to be ill-natured and mischievous, with a mind for cunning. Many tales present the leprechaun as outwitting a human, as in the following examples.
A farmer or young lad captures a leprechaun and forces him to reveal the location of his buried treasure. The leprechaun assures him that the treasure is buried in an open field beneath a particular ragwort plant. The farmer ties a red ribbon to the plant, first extracting a promise from the leprechaun not to remove the ribbon. Releasing the leprechaun, he leaves to get a shovel. Upon his return he finds that every weed in the field has been tied with an identical red ribbon, thus making it impossible to find the treasure.
In another story, a young girl finds a leprechaun and bids him show her the location of his buried money. She takes him up in her hand and sets out to find the treasure, but all of a sudden she hears a loud buzzing behind her. The leprechaun shouts at her that she is being chased by a swarm of bees, but when she looks around there are no bees and the leprechaun has vanished.
In other stories they are told of riding shepherds' dogs through the night, leaving the dogs exhausted and dirty in the morning. It is said that at the end of a rainbow, you may find a leprechaun and his treasured pot of gold.
It is also said that spending leprechaun money turns you into a leprechaun. In one story a young boy finds a leprechaun drowning in a river. The boy saves the dying leprechaun and is rewarded with some gold. Upon buying a flute the boy grows old and shrinks. It is said that he lived with the rescued Leprechaun and learned the way of cobbler.
The leprechaun originally had a different appearance depending on where in Ireland he was found. Prior to the 20th century, it was generally agreed that the leprechaun wore red and not green. Samuel Lover, writing in the 1831 describes the leprechaun as,
Yeats, in his 1888 book entitled Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry describes the leprechaun as follows:
In a poem entitled The Lepracaun; or, Fairy Shoemaker, the 18th century Irish poet William Allingham describes the appearance of the leprechaun as:
Some commentators accuse Allingham of leaving the legacy of the modern image of the leprechaun described below.
The modern image of the leprechaun is almost invariant: he is depicted wearing an emerald green frock coat, and bestowed with the knowledge of the location of buried treasure, often in a crock of gold.
The leprechaun is related to the clurichaun and the far darrig in that he is a solitary creature. Some writers even go as far as to substitute these second two less well-known spirits for the leprechaun in stories or tales to reach a wider audience. The clurichaun is considered by some to be merely a leprechaun on a killing spree.
Leprechauns have also been used in jokes regarding fiscal irresponsibility, the idea being that the politician or political party being attacked has found a pot of gold, or is going to ask a leprechaun for the location of such a pot, accommodating their spending.
The stereotypical image of a leprechaun bedecked in green is particularly strong in the United States, where it is widely used for a variety of purposes, both commercial and non-commercial.
Several alleged sightings of a leprechaun have been rumored in the Mobile, Alabama neighborhood of Crichton. While many residents claim that there is a leprechaun living in the trees, others explain away the phenomenon on more natural causes, such as light reflection or a crack addiction. After news of the supposed leprechaun reached media outlets, the rumor of the "Mobile Leprechaun" (or alternatively known as the "Crichton Leprechaun") spread internationally, creating a firestorm of YouTube and Google videos dedicated to the sightings causing many to ask "Where da gold at?"