Harry Potter Words

October 14, 2013

Voldemort! Surely you've heard of him: the evil wizard whose lust for power drives the plots of the Harry Potter books. You may have noticed that his name is equivalent to a French phrase, vol de mort. There are two distinct translations possible. Voler can mean "to fly" or "to steal," and mort means “death,” so the phrase can mean either "flight of death" or "theft of death." 
J.K. Rowling, the series' author, is adept at choosing evocative names for the denizens of Harry Potter's universe. Look at Dolores Umbridge, the odious headmistress in the fifth book. Her name appears at first glance to be an ordinary British name. However, dolores is Spanish for “pains” or “sorrows.” Readers who don't speak Spanish may still think of the English word dolorous. Then, Umbridge sounds just like umbrage, most commonly used in the phrase "take umbrage": to resent a perceived insult. The root of the word is Latin umbra, meaning “shadow.” 
One way of creating new words is the portmanteau. The English author of juvenile fiction from whom the name of the process originated, Lewis Carroll, explained it as "like a portmanteau [a large suitcase]—there are two meanings packed up into one word." For example, the word smog was created by merging smoke and fog. If you have a garment that's partly skirt and partly shorts, you might reasonably call it a skort. One of the four houses of Hogwarts School is named Slytherin. Slytherin may be a portmanteau of sly and slithering. In fact, it might almost be a descendant of one of Carroll's portmanteau words, slithy, explained as a blend of lithe and slimy
Rowling also uses spoonerisms. Rev. William Archibald Spooner was noted for unwittingly exchanging the initial sounds of words. For example, if he intended to mention a crushing blow, he might say "a blushing crow." (Most of the spoonerisms attributed to him are apocryphal, though.) In the fourth Harry Potter book, we learn about another wizarding school named the Durmstrang Institute. Durmstrang is clearly a spoonerism of Sturm und Drang, which is German for "storm and stress." The phrase is a term of literary criticism, applied to some of the early German Romantic novels. This is a neat way to imply that the school has a gloomy, wild character, at least to those readers who recognize the allusion. 
There are hundreds of other interesting explanations of names in the Harry Potter books. Some are obvious, some have been confirmed by Ms. Rowling herself, and some are just conjectures. It's easy to find web pages devoted to them on the many fan websites. Exploring them might lead a student to a lifelong interest in word origins.


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