Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

A Muggle's View of Potter-Speak

With the final Harry Potter movie opening this weekend, many are reflecting on the last legacy of J.K. Rowling's oeuvre. In print and on screen, the Harry Potter franchise has been incredibly successful, and it's only natural that such a mass phenomenon would leave its imprint on popular culture, including the popular lexicon. Rowling's inventive use of language has been a key to conjuring the fantasy world of the Potterverse, and that language has seeped into real-world usage as well.

I was interviewed about the popularity of Harry Potter-isms by NPR's "Morning Edition" and also wrote up a guide to words and expressions from the books and movies for NPR's "Monkey See" blog. (The interview airs Friday morning and audio will be available on the NPR site soon thereafter.) But truth be told, when it comes to Rowling's work, I'm nothing more than a muggle. In the Potterverse, that's someone without magical powers, but in extended use it's an unenlightened outsider who lacks the skills or knowledge associated with a particular community. (The Oxford English Dictionary gives this example from a 1999 issue of Computer Weekly "Our new senior DBA starts on Monday. She's a muggle. No IT background, understanding or aptitude at all.")

Despite my lack of Potter cred, I hope I've done justice to the rich linguistic creativity in Rowling's books and the film adaptations. It's true that Rowling is no J.R.R. Tolkien, who used his philological background to concoct not just names for people and things in his imagined world, but entire languages for the races of Middle Earth. Nevertheless, Rowling's innovation in coining terms for her realm of witches and wizards has clearly captivated readers young and old.

Over at the Oxford Dictionaries blog, Adam Pulford has an excellent post on the sources for Rowling's neologisms. For instance, Pulford explains that an animagus – a wizard capable of transforming into an animal – is "a blend of animal and magus, a Persian priest or magician from antiquity, so the meaning of a wizard as an animal is clearly derived." Names of people (Severus Snape, Bellatrix Lestrange) and places (Hogwarts, Azkaban) likewise display Rowling's knack for evocative word-wrangling.

To overcome my mugglehood, I enriched my knowledge of Potterisms by talking to devoted fans of the books. (Fortunately, I'm married to one!) I also delved into Harry Potter fan forums, where it's possible to find long discussion threads about how the language of the Potterverse has entered people's everyday lives. For American fans in particular, the Britishisms of the books and movies seem to lend added exoticism, and they revel in mimicking putdowns like prat and dunderhead or interjections like blimey and bloody hell (even if those expressions are unremarkable to Brits).

It's been much noted how entire generation has grown up with Rowling's books. Often, it starts with parents reading the early books in the series aloud to their children, and then the children learn to read the books on their own. As they grow older, they are exploring not just the escapist fun of Potter wizardry, but also the joys of language itself. That, I think, will be Rowling's lasting legacy. The young readers who expanded their literacy with the Harry Potter books will carry with them a delight in linguistic play, thanks to their appreciation of horcruxes and dementors, Butterbeer and Quidditch. At least that's one muggle's perspective.

(Read "A Guide To Potter-isms: Wizardspeak In Translation" on the NPR website here.)

Update: The audio for the "Morning Edition" segment is now online.

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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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