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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Comments from our users:

Friday July 15th 2011, 6:42 AM
Comment by: Patricia E. (Santiago Chile)
Dear Ben, hHow can a VT article be titled Muggle's view... and the word Muggle can not be found in the Vocabulary grabber section to see its meaning?!!
You dear guys of the VT keep forgetting that people whose mother tongue is other than English are also interested in your articles.
Patricia Echard
Friday July 15th 2011, 9:43 AM
Comment by: Alexandra M.
Patricia, not only does the article explain what a muggle is, but is about how invented words like "muggle" from the Harry Potter books and films are infiltrating into everyday usage.
Friday July 15th 2011, 9:51 AM
Comment by: David D.
Thanks Ben,
Of all of Rowling's clever word play, my personal favorite is the magical little street where Hogwarts student go to by book and wands and robes and very strange candies. It is an alley just out of Muggle view, accessed by turning just so at the right spot, called Diagonalley.
I qualify as an "old" fantasy lover, being 75 and a long time fan of J.R.R. Tolkien as well as anything else I have been able to get my hands on. It's fun to be with the young!
David D.
Friday July 15th 2011, 4:51 PM
Comment by: Nida F.
My favorite word is "Quidditch", although I'm not much of a sports fan, I think Quidditch is one fantastic game played on brooms. I also like the name of Harry's broom, the Firebolt. I was a fan of it for a long time until I got over it.
Saturday July 16th 2011, 10:36 AM
Comment by: begum F.Top 10 Commenter
Mr. Zimmer presented it nicely.
Well, I'm not Harry Potter's fan, so I do not have any comment.
Imagination works like magic for J.K. Rowlings.
Want to enjoy real world's magic.
Sunday July 17th 2011, 10:21 AM
Comment by: Patricia E. (Santiago Chile)
Alexandra, it sure does explain the meaning clearly enough, but what I mean is why it is not included in the vocabulary grabber. Is it just because it's a made up word? Is it that it won't be found in any dictionary? But if it's infiltrating in everyday usage, I think it deserves an entry in Vt vocabulary grabber at least. Not only I like to understand the meaning of muggler (clearly explained by Mr. Zimmer)but I'd like to know how to use it or teach it in a context and that's why I consulted it in the VG.
Thanks for your help, Alexandra.
Sunday July 17th 2011, 12:17 PM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
Thanks for the recommendation to add "muggle" to our online dictionary (which powers VocabGrabber). Though the word hasn't yet entered many dictionaries beyond the OED, it's surely worthy of inclusion.
Sunday July 17th 2011, 10:11 PM
Comment by: Chocoholic (New Delhi India)
Dear Mr Zimmer,
I am a Harry-Potter worshipper, and have been reading the books since I was six.
All I wanted to say was, thanks for this wonderful article. I love fantasies, and you just put forth the reason behind my love for fantasies in this article.
I find the names of the characters extremely evocative- Draco Malfoy, Neville Longbottom, Mundungus Fletcher etc. I like the name Remus Lupin the best- he is a werewolf, so "Remus" must have been taken from the story of Remus and Romulus brought up by a she-wolf, and "Lupin" sounds like "loup", which means "wolf" in French. I study French, and I find a lot of spells whose effect sounds similar to many French words.

I bet Harry Potter will become a classic or a fairytale like Peter Pan after some decades. There's something about it that makes it more likable than Percy Jackson or Twilight(which I don't like at all) or any other fantasy I've ever read.

Thanks once more for this article!

A young HP fan
Sunday July 31st 2011, 7:36 AM
Comment by: Dylan A.
Mr. Zimmer is absolutely right, i have heard plenty of people talking in "Potter Verbs".

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