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.