You might chortle at the thought, but a surprising number of words we use every day slipped into the English language through children’s books.
“Chortle,” a combination of “snort” and “chuckle,” was coined by C.S. Lewis in the poem “Jabberwocky,” which appears in his children’s fantasy novel Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There. It’s not at all uncommon to hear terms like “hobbit” used outside of a discussion of The Lord of the Rings. And we’d never be able to describe peach cobbler or chocolate lava cake as “scrumdiddlyumptious” without Roald Dahl.
To some degree, this results from purposeful allusion. You might not say “Oompa Loompa” unless you’re intending to call up an image of the fictional chocolate factory workers enslaved by Willy Wonka. But these terms bleed into our culture until even those who’ve never read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory know more or less what they mean, and they take on a whole new place in the language.
Twenty years after the series kicked off, it seems hardly anyone has avoided reading the “Harry Potter” books or seeing the movies; perhaps that’s why so much of the series’ wildly original vocabulary has already seeped into our everyday chatter. A well-meaning but uncool friend is “such a Hufflepuff,” people who don’t get the Potterverse are “Muggles,” and a train delay makes one wish for the ability to “apparate” to their destination. J.K. Rowling’s magical world, which adds new or revitalized concepts to a familiar world, is a rich source of vocabulary for describing our humdrum existences with more color and imagination.
Rowling made it easy for readers to integrate spells, wizarding terms and names into their regular lives. She researched and carefully constructed new words from relevant linguistic roots, resulting in words like “apparate” that fit perfectly into our existing language. “To apparate” means to magically disappear and reappear in a new location, and is derived from a Latin term for “to appear.”
Other terms, like “Slytherin” or “Hufflepuff”, also suggest meaning through sound, a linguistic phenomenon called “sound symbolism.” The sibilant consonants of “Slytherin” suggest something sly, smooth and cunning (as does the obvious link to slithering snakes); Hufflepuff’s comical “uff”s sound effortful but also innocuous. Little wonder that Slytherin is the house of clever, ambitious wizards and Hufflepuff is the house of kind, hardworking ones.
“Muggle” may be the most widely used Potterism. Unlike most original words from the books, it has merited an entry in Oxford Dictionaries. The word for non-magical folk manages to sound like exactly what it is: a bit of a goober, but a harmless one. Rowling has said she derived the word from “mug,” a Britishism for a gullible fool, and that she also wanted to make the word a bit “cuddly.”
The word she came up with evokes not only a “mug,” but something “snuggly” and also a “struggle.” This combo makes the word irresistible in everyday conversation, whether you’re describing someone who has never read “Harry Potter” or anyone unfamiliar with your subculture of choice. As an example, Oxford suggests, “She’s a muggle: no IT background, understanding or aptitude at all.”
It’s not a slur, but it simply oozes head-patting condescension.
“You-Know-Who” and “He Who Must Not Be Named” don’t just mean the character of Voldemort, the super-villain of the wizarding world ― they could refer any powerful, loathed figure. Even “Voldemort” has become shorthand on the left for referencing President Donald Trump. His motley crew of aides and advisors? They’re Voldemort’s loyal followers. Why explain how evil you think Steve Bannon is if you need only call him a “Death Eater”? On the flip side, “Hermione” became almost synonymous with Hillary Clinton during the 2016 election.
“Accio,” the Summoning Charm, is too useful to leave in the magical world ― we all need to accio our keys every now and then ― though its pronunciation is too tricky to easily use in spoken conversation. Sometimes the thought of erasing someone’s memory with a quick “obliviate” seems tempting. And though “Time-Turners” are heavily restricted even in the wizarding world, where they at least exist, after a particularly dumb mistake it’s natural to openly wish for such a magical gadget to go back and fix things.
It’s a rare author indeed whose imagination changes the very language we use. William Shakespeare and John Milton, both renowned poets, have famously introduced hundreds of words and phrases into the English tongue. Lewis Carroll, one of the most legendary children’s book authors of all time, has also coined terms that we now use without even realizing where we learned them. Rowling’s well-researched inventiveness has put her in the same illustrious group ― and for all the theme parks and movies her books have spawned, this effect on the English language may prove to be one of the “Harry Potter” universe’s most long-lasting and profound accomplishments.
What wizarding words do you find yourself sprinkling into your vocabulary? Let us know in the comments.
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