Pop Culture Quest: Harry Potter (Part 1)

How better to start a topic about words introduced by pop culture than with one of the largest franchises in the world?

Any story is capable of spawning its own dictionary, especially with heavy world building á la Lord of the Rings. But JK Rowling is well-known for the intensive research and thought she puts into the words and names she comes up with for her novels. On the Oxford Dictionary blog, they called her a “Linguistic Innovator”, and had this to say about her:

J. K. Rowling uses language in her books to enhance the other-worldliness of her theme. She not only references mythology through the inclusion of creatures such as centaurs and hippogriffs, but follows in the footsteps of such authors as Tolkien by creating a number of innovative new words for her world.

Not only has she created words for her series, but one of them even appears in the official Oxford Dictionary!

Certainly the most prolific of her creations is muggle – a non-magical person – which has now gained its own meaning outside of Harry Potter as ’a person who lacks a particular skill’, and is included in our dictionaries. For an invented word by an author to reach this status is a great achievement, and a clear indication of the impact of the language within her novels; readers have transferred the language from her world into our own. . – Adam Pulford, Oxford Dictionary Blog, July 2011

Rowling is on record for saying that she came up with the word ‘muggle’ from the British slang ‘mug’ meaning ‘fool’, then added the diminutive ending to suggest both foolishness and loveability. While Rowling has explanations for some of her words on record, we can only guess at the origins for the rest. Here are some of the most well known words that she coined for the Harry Potter universe:

1. Squib (n.): a non-magical person who is born to magical parents

No, this is not a squid. It’s not confirmed, but some believe the origins of this word come from the expression “damp squib”, which is a firecracker that fizzles out rather than exploding properly, essentially meaning something that is a disappointment.

2. Mudblood (n.): a magical person who is born to non-magical parents

Used as a derogatory term, this word is a simple combination of ‘mud’ and ‘blood’. Put together, it means someone with unclean or dirtied blood because they are not from pure magical families. While not the fanciest word Rowling has penned, the word itself is a gem, with the two halves not only rhyming, but also ending in hard ‘d’s, giving Malfoy an easy phrase to all but spit at Hermione.

3. Horcrux (n.): an object infused with a fragment of a person’s soul

As the definition explains, a Horcrux is an object Voldemort used to contain pieces of his soul for the purposed of immortality. It’s believed that the word ‘Horcrux’ is from the French words “dehors” (outside) and “crux” (soul). Together, these would mean “the outside soul”, which matches up with the definition perfectly.

4. Animagus (n.) a witch or wizard who can morph into an animal at will

The best examples in the series would be Sirius (changed into a large, black dog) and Professor McGonagall (changed into a cat). Rowling put together the English word “animal” and the Latin word “magus” (magician or sorcerer) to form a portmanteau that essentially means “animal magician”.

5. Dementor (n.): a dark creature that absorbs the happiness of the creatures around them

In the books, the Dementors are the guardians of the wizarding prison, Azkaban. They suck the happiness out of their victims, leaving them insane and soulless. This is a great name for these creatures, since it is from the Latin word “dememto”, meaning “to drive mad” or “deprive of one’s mind”.

6. Quidditch (n.): a sport within the realm of the wizarding world

Arguably one of the best parts of the Harry Potter world, Quidditch is a sport played on broomsticks with bewitched balls that either get thrown through the goal, try to hide, or try to injure players. Different sources I have checked have had different things to say about where the name came from, but it seems to be confirmed that Rowling made it up with no set etymology. Apparently, she wrote out 5 pages of new words starting with the letter ‘Q’ until she found one that she liked. But my favorite explanation is that it is a combination of the three words used to describe the three different balls: quaffle, two bludgers, and the golden snitch.

7. Auror (n.): Dark Wizard Catcher

Auror’s are like the police force or the CIA of the wizarding world. This is also one of the harder words to guess the etymology, as there isn’t any instant connection on how Rowling came up with this name. The only explanation I have found is from The Nine Muses, suggesting that, “Auror derives from the Latin “aurum,” which means “gold.” Meanwhile, Brits call policemen “coppers.” A higher class of policeman would be a “golder” or as JKR suggests, auror.” I’m not sure I am completely sold on that, but Rowling has never confirmed, so we may never know.

8. Howler (n.): a letter that shouts its message and explodes if unopened. Used as punishment.

It was every students worst nightmare to receive a Howler from an angry parent, depicted in the movies as a red envelope that would start shouting at the recipient. It’s easy to see that this word comes from the English word “howl”, meaning “to cry or wail loudly for a prolonged period of time”. But in addition to that, a “howler” is Australian slang for “a glaring blunder, typically an amusing one”, which also fits perfectly for the embarrassing nature of how they are usually received publically in front of the entire student body at Hogwarts.

9. Legilimency (n.): mind-reading method, and Occlumency (n.): method of blocking said mind reading

Let’s all thank our lucky stars that this is not something we have to deal with in the real world! I put these two together since they so directly relate and both words are easy to break down. Legilimency comes from the Latin “legere” (to read) and “mens (the mind), so literally, it is “reading the mind”. Occlumency is the opposite, coming from the Latin “occlude” (to close off) and “mens (the mind).

10. Parselmouth (n.): a person who can converse with snakes

The easiest of all, this is a word confirmed directly by JK Rowling. In her own words, “Parselmouth is an old word for someone who has a problem with the mouth, like a hare lip.”

What are your favorite words from the series?

(Resources: Hello Giggles, The Nine Muses, Oxford Dictionaries, Language Realm, The Harry Potter Lexicon)


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