The Hogwarts Generation

by Translation Guy on September 7, 2011

Can you keep your muggles straight? That’s the term used to describe the magically-challenged in the Harry Potter Universe. It’s just one of the best known of about 400 or so words made up by author J. K. Rowling for the sprawling series that has captured the imagination of a generation.  Hogwarts, referenced above, is the name of the school where Harry Potter pursues his magical studies, where he becomes involved in a genocidal war to eradicate those of us who lack magic powers (which I guess would include most of my readers). And if you aren’t a Harry Potter fan, but are interesting in speaking to these guys heart-to-heart, HP is a good way to get a glimpse at their imaginations.

Since the first novel came out in 1997, the series has sold about 450 million copies in 67 languages, and the last four books consecutively set records as the fastest-selling books in history. The last movie, thank goodness, has just been released.

For the young fans who have watched the story develop over the last 15 years, who grew as the story grew, from the wonder of childhood to the darker strains of Rowling’s latter books, the story mirrors their own experience. The influence of these books on this generation, the shared experience, has made it an intellectual touchstone as influential as Homer to generations past, or even the Bible today. No John Lennon-esque biblical disrespect intended, but ask a 16-year-old about Jonah and the Whale, and you’re more than likely to get a blank stare, but ask them about how to score a Quidditch game and you will learn far more than any non-Potterite would ever, ever want to know.

At the risk of earning the eternal hatred of the half-billion who love her work, I have to admit that I am not a fan of J. K. Rowling, who, for me at least, violated the first rule of the bedtime story, which is that the listener must fall asleep before the reader. Any book that puts me to sleep faster than a four-year-old is a no-go. (And I consider myself an expert at telling a snoozer, as any of my readers can attest). So from Rowling’s first painfully written book, I never thought of her as much of a story-teller, although I understand she’s much better now, but right from the start, Rowling has had a way with words. The etymology of her language, the suggestions of meaning she incorporates into made-up words that sound both playful and familiar has allowed this one woman to leave a great mark on English.

Take muggles, as posted at Wordnik: “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 witty writing; an unimportant, paltry, or mean-spirited person.’”

A lot more links for Harry Potter language buffs at this site, including the inspiration for the post, Jessy Randall’s essay from Verbatim.

The kids (and kids to come) all share this secret language, a kind of magic wand pointed at their hearts that the best Severing Charm will never remove. A secret language they will share for the rest of their lives. How wonderful in this age of the internet, where tastes have fractured into a thousand different threads, that the last great book has tied a generation together in imagination.

Sure, there will be other wonderful stories that capture the imaginations of generations, but this is the last gasp of ink on paper, the final lion’s roar of the presses. For all of us who love the printed page, we can be proud that the printing press went out with a bang as big as Harry up against Voldemort, and not some muggle wimper.

Next, Harry Potter in translation.


  1. Kent Bauer says:

    The Harry Potter novels and the films based on them have spawned an incredible amount of new words and phrases, as well as introducing previously rare words back into mainstream English.

  2. him810ce says:

    I really enjoyed reading Jessye Randall’s essay. Thanks for including it in your post.

  3. Dorothy West says:

    J.K. Rowling is so much more than most give her credit for. Her words are clever and do have much more to them than most understand.

  4. Dru says:

    Do you really think this was the last, greatest written work? I don’t believe it. Something else will come along, but it has to cpture the imagination of both kids AND grown-ups. That is the key!

    • Ken says:

      Last great printed work is what I mean. Text on screen won’t fade until we are all required to have brain jacks.

  5. The last time we experienced this kind of worldwide phenomenon in entertainment was I think with Titanic, when young and old went crazy for it… and so did China!

  6. Bill Hamberg says:

    I wonder if the book has been translated into Braille?

  7. With all of her anagrams, riddles, made-up names, rhymes and cultural language, the author sure has made it a formidable task to translate her work.

  8. Jim Nguyen says:

    I am just glad that someone has found something to connect us with, to really be a sort of point in reference in our culture. Meaning, of course, all that is Harry Potter.

  9. Princess says:

    gotta wonder how many of her made-up words will be added to our dictionnaries (if they aren’t already!)

  10. alewis says:

    All of those crazy made-up words is exactly what I couldn’t stand reading in her books-half the time I wasn’t even sure if I was even reading it right in my head. It is easier just to watch the movies!

  11. Adam Carroll says:

    I must agree with you, I am not much of a Harry Potter fan. Her writing is, simply put, not great. (and yes, boring at the beginning) But I am glad that so many more people are reading, especially children!

  12. Walter says:

    Are schools now allowing copies of the book in their libraries? I recall a few years ago there was a big uproar about children reading these books.

  13. Sweet Babe says:

    JK Rrwling herself had issues with the translations, and therefore we have the English version in an “American dialect” vs. the British one. This is most notably seen in the title of the first book being changed from ‘philosopher’s’ to ‘sorcerer’s’ stone.

  14. Quasar says:

    I would think the difficulty in translating HP would be comparable to translating JRR Tolkien’s Middle Earth masterpieces, with his made up langauge…

  15. vietkid2 says:

    Why must we analyse the language so much? I just like to read a book and enjoy the story. Not everything has to be dissected to pieces.

    • Ken says:

      I guess you don’t work in the translation business, Vietkid2. I’m up to my elbows in linguistic vivisection all day long.

  16. Ultimately it is about preserving the feel of the work, and staying true to the story. I applaud all of the translators out there as it is not an easy job to do!

  17. Tracy Willis says:

    Thanks for a great post, HP is a great translation topic!

  18. Warren Paul says:

    One of the reasons HP has been such a success is because the books have grown up with the kids themselves. Everything was well paced and the books got darker and more ‘mature’ as the kids got older. Smart!

  19. Isn’t it wonderful that her work has produced such a fun text to translate? :)

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