September 16, 2001

Screening the Novel Words of Harry Potter


"Muggles of the world, unite," a Variety review begins, invoking a 1997 noun from J.K. Rowling's magical novels about a boy wizard named Harry Potter. While younger readers already know their Potterese, parents and those less fluent may welcome some lexical help. Muggles, for example, is a word that Rowling says she invented for "nonmagical humans." It may derive from mug, a 1708 term for "face" drawn from drinking cups decorated with grotesque visages, but the Potter word is not without controversy. Nancy Stouffer, another author of children's books, lays earlier claim to the same word in her 1984 book, "The Legend of Rah and the Muggles."

According to the O.E.D., that noun is actually much older, dating back to Middle English. There's even a 1928 Louis Armstrong recording titled "Muggles," from another modern sense of the word: "cigarettes laced with marijuana." (Readers of J.R.R. Tolkien may be equally distressed that hobbit began as a 1729 word for "howitzer.")

In the four novels released so far, many of Rowling's bewitching words come from recycling older English. The ghosts at Harry Potter's school celebrate each anniversary of their deathday, known in Old English as "deothdaege" since 735. Harry's busy headmaster is named Dumbledore, a 1787 word for "bumblebee." Howler, an 1800 noun once applied to any professional wailer at funerals, denotes a parental letter of disapproval delivered in a screaming voice.

Playing with words also creates much of this popular-fiction diction. The adverb "diagonally" is stretched to spell out London's Diagon Alley, a secret shopping street for wizards. Rhyming syllables make up Mudblood, an insult for any wizard born of Muggle parents, while reversed syllables help turn "warthog" into Harry's wizard school of Hogwarts. Reverse spelling is reflected in Erised, "desire" spelled backward to name a mirror that shows the heart's desire of every onlooker.

Fanciful Potter patter also includes the treasure-sniffing nifflers, "fluffy black creatures with long snouts," their name formed by dropping the first letter from "snifflers." The portmanteau word Animagus, for a wizard who can be transformed into an animal, blends "animal" and "magus." Foreign languages are also fair game in Rowling's wordplay, with the wizard school of Durmstrang formed by a spoonerism of the German phrase Sturm und Drang, "storm and stress."

Audiences may stress out, however, when the first Harry Potter movie opens in November. How will readers react to hearing words and names familiar only in print?

"Just the sound of a name like Dumbledore is effective," notes Thomas F. Cannon Jr., assistant professor of literature at American University. "Readers who have heard the Potter tapes or seen the film may well be surprised when they put together the orthography with the pronunciation." In fact, it was apparently British pronunciation that led to the spelling of Quidditch, a soccerlike game played by wizards on flying broomsticks. The sport takes its name, according to Rowling, from its imaginary place of origin, "Queerditch" Marsh.

Digging through these enchanting words, Rowling's readers may unearth other meanings buried in Potter's field. Take, for example, the pointless class known as Defense Against the Dark Arts, suggesting the appropriate acronym of DADA. Similarly, the name of Hagrid, the giant groundskeeper at Hogwarts, may come from a variant of the 1684 hag-ridden, describing somebody harassed or tormented by an evil female spirit. Thomas Hardy, in his 1886 novel, "The Mayor of Casterbridge," conjures the word: "When she had not slept she did not quaintly tell the servants next morning that she had been hagrid." (The same Hardy paragraph, perhaps a key passage, also mentions dumbledore.)

Most of the terms, however, will be quick to disappear, predicts Sol Steinmetz, the lexicographer whose 2000 novel, "Youthopia U.S.A.," celebrates futuristic slang. "Of the many fabulous coinages of Dr. Seuss," he recalls, "only grinch made it into the common vocabulary, in the transferred sense of 'a spoilsport or killjoy' -- and it took 20 years."


The talk-show guest wanted to impress Sally Jessy Raphael with his sudden change of attitude. "I did a complete 360," he told her, referring to the number of degrees in a circle.

And not long ago on "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire", a contestant was asked, "In hip-hop slang, what are the 1's and 2's?" Not even Regis Philbin knew the answer: "turntables."

Numbers seem to be replacing words 24/7 these days.

In fact, 24/7 originated in street slang more than a decade ago to represent "24 hours a day, 7 days a week." More recently, Chevrolet ads have tried to popularize a longer form, even though it misses a day every leap year: 24/7/365, written with virgules. The country singer Neal McCoy used hyphens last year to title his CD "24-7-365." Will those hyphens be replacing the virgules soon? No, says a survey of publishing professionals in the McMurry newsletter Copy Editor, which finds that 89 percent of readers prefer 24/7 to 24-7.

The shorthand use of numbers for words is multiplying, asserts Anne H. Soukhanov, the editor of the new Microsoft Encarta College Dictionary. To label this wording-by-Arabic-numeral, she recommends numeronym, which originally meant "a telephone number that spells a word or name." Her examples include the area code 212 for "a New Yorker" and "404 -- four-oh-four" -- from computer code for "somebody stupid."

Ever since Americans were taxed with a form numbered 1040 and soda jerks served up the slang 86 to cut off a customer, this trend has added a whole new meaning to "figures of speech." The telephone number for information, 411, and the emergency 911 are both used 24/7, and journalists have long ended articles with 30. Beeper code offers 143 for "I love you," based on the number of letters in each word.

Are such coinages shortchanging the language? Maybe so, but at least math skills still count. "You must have done a 180", Sally Jessy Raphael corrected her guest. "A 360 would be a full circle, and that's no change at all".

Jeffrey McQuain is the author, most recently, of "Never Enough Words" (Random House). He also works for William Safire, who is on vacation.

Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company