Attention all muggles and squibs!

by Angela Tung on July 15, 2011

Unless you’ve been locked up in Azkaban all summer, you’ll know that the very last Harry Potter movie opens today.  We at Wordnik love the JK Rowling series, and not just because of the magic and butterbeer.

“The Harry Potter books,” writes Jessy Randall in this essay from VERBATIM, “are not just good literature but a treasury of wordplay and invention,” and we couldn’t agree more.

There are the Latin-based spells. Reducio, which reduces the size of an object, notes Randall, comes from the Latin reducere (re- “back” + ducere “bring, lead”).  Some more examples from Randall:

Reparo! (Latin reparare) repairs. Riddikulus! (Latin ridiculus) turns an enemy— usually a Boggart—into something ridiculous or laughable. Lumos! (Latin lumen, ‘light’) causes illumination. Impedimenta! (Latin impedimentum) impedes or slows the enemy. Sonorus! (Latin sonor, ‘sound;’ English sonorous) causes one’s wand to become a microphone. Stupefy! (Latin stupefacere, stupere, ‘to be stunned’) stupefies the enemy, causing confusion. Expelliarmus! (Latin expellere, ‘to drive out’) expels your opponent’s wand from his or her hand.

Many of Rowling’s terms are also common words with other meanings. While a muggle is known in the Potterverse as “a person who has no magical abilities,” it also once meant “a contest between drinkers to decide which of them can drink the most,” and also referred to a marijuana cigarette, hot chocolate, and “to be restless; to remove, deface or destroy a geocache.” A squib is the unmagical offspring of magical parents but also “a small firework that is intended to spew sparks rather than explode; a short piece of writty writing; an unimportant, paltry, or mean-spirited person.”

Characters’ names are often also common words.  A dumbledore is a bumblebee.  Snape is a ship-building term that means “to bevel the end of (a timber or plank) so that it will fit accurately upon an inclined surface.” Hagrid is the past participle of hagride, which means “to harass or torment by dread or nightmares.”  Skeeter is a term for an annoying pest, and not just Rita Skeeter, blood-sucking journalist.  Mundungus is “waste animal product” or “poor-quality tobacco with a foul, rancid, or putrid smell,” a good name for a sneaky thief.

If you’re interested in all the words of Harry Potter, you’re in luck: we have Potterlists here, and here, and here, and here.  If you love all things magical, check out It’s Magic! and -Mancy, which list different kinds of -mency and -mancy words, or divinations. This one is about extrasensory individuals, including sibyl, “an old woman professing to be a prophetess or fortune-teller; a sorceress,” and the namesake of Sybill Trelawney, Hogwarts’ professor of divination. Also don’t forget spells, spellcasters, and amulets.

Whatever your fancy, bring your wands and remember, in the words of Hermione Granger, it’s wingardium levi-O-sa!

[Photo: In Flex We Trust]

C'nor (Outermost_Toe) July 15, 2011 at 10:30 pm

“Whatever your fancy, bring your wands and remember, in the words of Hermione Granger, it’s wingardium levi-O-sa!”

Don’t forget the proper wand motion, too.

Anyway, I’m surprised you didn’t mention that when Mundungus Fletcher smokes, it smells like burning socks (See: Order of the Phoenix), which certainly fits the meaning of “poor-quality tobacco with a foul, rancid, or putrid smell”.

Will Vaughan July 16, 2011 at 1:38 pm

I think “muggle” being used in the sense of “to remove, deface or destroy a geocache” postdates at least the first three Harry Potter books. (The third Harry Potter book was released in the US in September 1999, whereas the first geocache was placed May 3, 2000!)

Moreover, this usage is inspired by the Harry Potter books: the sort of people who haven’t been turned on to the “magical” world of geocaching and who would deface a geocache are considered “muggles”.

rrsafety July 18, 2011 at 6:40 am

“Muggles” is the name of a character in the 1871 play “Partners for Life” by Henry James Byron which was first performed in the Globe Theatre October 7, 1871.

Grover July 18, 2011 at 8:29 am

Squibs are also the tiny packs of fake blood that explode in movies to make it look like someone is being shot.

Mehitabel July 18, 2011 at 9:40 am

Don’t forget puns and wordplay – such as Diagon Alley…

Paul Clapham July 18, 2011 at 3:38 pm

You might also like to know that the word “hogwarts” appears in Finnegans Wake.

Yes, I did the hard work so you don’t have to! The other thing I learned while reading it was that Anthony Burgess was absolutely right to produce a condensed version of it.

Arcopol July 19, 2011 at 1:26 am

This is the most fascinating post I’ve read on Harry Potter. JK Rowling’s world is indeed magical, but such spells are so cleverly rooted in real world lingo.

notsohot July 19, 2011 at 4:56 am

Not so hot on Potter books myself – and exactly this is one of the reasons.
One thing is Terry Prattchet using pig-Latin in his books for adults but another thing is using Latin words in a book for children just because the words sound “strange”. It just shows the low level of reader education this books are written for (and does not try to remedy it).
The same can be said for all the copying of elements from various other sources (from Lord of the Rings to Peter Pan). If we are getting excited with words, let’s talk about Tolkien who invented a new language for his elves – not about the lady who makes children believe Latin is a magical language.

Grace July 21, 2011 at 6:46 am

Re: Notsohot’s comment

But Latin IS a magical language! To Jo Rowling’s credit, she has resuscitated life into a language that most people have written off as “dead”. If anything, I think it inspired a lot of kids to have a greater interest in words and language. The wizarding spells of Harry Potter’s world was certainly a motivator for me when I studied Latin in school (I even read the Latin translation of “The Sorcerer’s Stone”).

Tolkien was incredibly creative for inventing a completely new language in Lord of the Rings, but it would be unfair to undermine Rowling’s contribution to literature and language.

Srikanth July 27, 2011 at 7:46 am

The series of novels written by JKR are rather, more similar to folk tales in southern India wherein a wizard generally places his soul secretly in some creature like parrot or pegion and the hero chases them out… I donno about the rest of the world’s folk tales. However, it the novelty in telling the story which creates interest in kids ( I am talking about children stories only)… JKR did a great job as far as language is concerned..In her way she made many people around the world get acquainted with the Latin words and their roots.

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