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Harry Potter and the Discombobulated Description

The spells are quite witty, but they aren't the only examples of wordplay in the Harry Potter universe. In the Potter novels J. K. Rowling uses vocabulary that has made her characters living creatures to generations of readers. Whether it is Harry's visions of Voldemort's livid face or Draco Malfoy's seemingly ever-present smirk, language helps to define these characters. This tradition continues in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, where Jack Thorne, the playwright, must do a lot of the description in stage directions.

Discombobulate

This word is used three times in stage directions to describe the situation of three separate characters. Discombobulated means confused, frustrated and troubled. It is a less serious word to describe these states of mind, but it is still often used to describe a general state of being mixed-up and unsure. These three instances of discombobulation tell us a lot about the characters in the play, but also about the shades of meaning of discombobulate itself.

CRAIG BOWKER JR.: Whoa! A Potter? In Slytherin.

ALBUS looks out, unsure. SCORPIUS smiles, delighted, as he shouts across to him.

SCORPIUS: You can stand next to me!

ALBUS (thoroughly discombobulated): Right. Yes.

First is Albus Potter, who has the burden of going to Hogwarts being Harry Potter's son while at the same time being named after Dumbledore. Although the reader encountered Albus Potter at the end of the last Harry Potter novel, it is fair to say that the audience doesn't know him that well. Albus is described as discombobulated at the Sorting Hat ceremony. The Sorting Hat ceremony, in both the books and the movies, is treated as a magical, wonderful event, but for Albus, the pressure of his family is weighing on him and he is convinced he will be sorted into Slytherin, the house associated with Dark Magic. This would be difficult enough, but after his father was the hero of Gryffindor, the Sorting Hat ceremony is stressful and confusing for Albus, to say the least.

ALBUS: We're in — the hospital wing?

HARRY turns his attention back to ALBUS.

HARRY (discombobulated): Yes. And you're — you will be fine. For recuperation, Madam Pomfrey wasn't sure what to prescribe and said you should probably eat lots of — chocolate.

The next instance of a character in the play being described as discombobulated is Harry himself. Without giving too much away, Albus is in the hospital and Harry, who has been having a difficult time communicating with Albus throughout the play, cannot think of much to say to Albus to comfort him.  Discombobulated is an appropriate word in this situation because it reflects and refers to Harry's problem communicating throughout the play. In this particular scene, Harry is most likely very confused and upset at seeing his child injured at all. Many parents find it difficult to deal with their child's injury, no matter how small. Through discombobulated, you can see one of the major themes of the play — the discombobulating difficulty of being a responsible parent when you still feel like a child yourself, or in Harry's case, when you did not have parents to model yourself after.

HERMIONE: Close your mouth when you're looking at me, Weasley.

RON does so. Though he remains discombobulated.

The final instance of discombobulation is a much lighter one, and is used to describe a character in the series that many fans would most associate with the word discombobulate — Ron Weasley. Hermione says something to Ron in a slightly threatening tone, and Ron is comically mixed up and made "out of sorts" by it. Some of the humor in the Harry Potter series revolves around Ron's awkwardness and the sense that he doesn't quite fit. Always prone to somewhat corny humor and discombobulation, it is not an accident that as an adult, Ron runs a joke shop.

What makes J. K. Rowling's characters so alive that readers are willing to follow them through hundreds upon hundreds of novel pages and now Jack Thorne's play? Two important aspects of an answer to this question are humor and vibrant description. Humor and vibrant description are essential to building a convincing world and are especially important given the dark, plot-heavy turns the Harry Potter series takes. These facets are crucial because they make the reader care about the characters the author is putting in jeopardy. Too often an author will think that the adventure is enough to captivate the reader.  Luckily, J. K. Rowling and Jack Thorne know that the linguistic details count, too.


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Adam Cooper studied linguistics at Brandeis University and The University of Chicago. Since 2010, he has been working with The Endangered Language Alliance in New York City on documentation and preservation projects. Click here to read more articles by Adam Cooper.

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