Harry Potter and the etymology lesson
The Word Nerd
With the recent movie release of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and J.K. Rowling’s latest effort, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, we are awash in Pottermania.
In the unlikely event that any reader of The Senior Times receives an invitation to a lemonade party from the under 12 set, you can wow the young revelers with your knowledge of the names Rowling has selected for people and places in her books.
Harry’s nemesis is the evil Draco Malfoy. Here, both the first and last names describe his character. Draco is Latin for “dragon” and it was also the name of the “zero-tolerant” 7th Century BCE Athenian lawmaker who lent his name to the word “draconian.” Mal foi is French for “bad faith” and the name Malfoy conjures all sort of malicious and malignant words. Malfoy belongs to the malevolent Slytherin House, named after its founder Salazar Slytherin. “Slytherin” is a blend of the words “sly” and “slithering.”
Harry’s supreme foe is the Hitlerian Lord Voldemort. This name does double duty, as vol de mort in French means “flight from death” or “theft of death” and “vole” is also a type of rat-like rodent.
Most of Harry’s teachers at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry have evocative names.
Professor Quirrel is both quarrelsome and squirrely and Professor Severus Snape is severe, a cross between a snipe and a snake.
Professor Alastor Moody waits many years for an opportunity to exact revenge. This is classically appropriate, as Alastor in Greek means “avenging deity.”
Hogwarts’ professors tend to gravitate to fields that match their names. Vindictus Veridian teaches a class on curses and Professor Sprout ’s area of expertise is herbology.
Professor Remus Lupin teaches a course in “Defense Against the Dark Arts.” Guess whathe turns out to be? Those who know Latin and Roman mythology will be able to divine that he is a werewolf. According to lore, Remus, the co-founder of Rome, was suckled by a wolf, and lupus is the Latin word for “wolf.”
Rowling is also quite adept in creating suggestive place-names. The author was born in Chipping Sodbury, near Bristol, in England. Rowling has said that the funny sound of her birthplace may have contributed to her love of curious-sounding words in later life.
Harry’s highly obnoxious adoptive family, the Dursleys, live in Little Whingeing. Whingeing is the British English equivalent of “whining.” Harry’s “porky” cousin Dudley Dursley attends Smelting School. “Smelt” is the British English past tense of “smell.”
Rowling has particular fun with the two shopping streets that wizards frequent in London. One is called Diagon Alley, an obvious pun on “diagonally,” as one can’t just walk straight into Diagon Alley but must seemingly enter “diagonally.” The other street she calls “Knockturn Alley,” a play on the word “nocturnally.”
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) has seen fit to add a word popularized by Rowling. I refer to the word “Muggle.” In the parlance of wizards, a “Muggle" refers to a non-magical person.
Actually, the OED already shows three meanings for “muggle,” including a 13th Century Kentish word for “tail” and a term for marijuana from the early part of the 20th Century. A muggle-head referenced one who smoked marijuana, and a muggler referred to a marijuana addict. I suspect Rowling chose this word to describe non-magical people because it connotes a humdrum existence. A mug is an inelegant word for ones ’ face, and the OED shows a sense where it refers to “a stupid or incompetent person.” Also, in East Anglia and Shropshire dialect, the word refers to “a damp, dull, gloomy state of the atmosphere.”
But then again, what do I know? I’m just a Muggle.