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Anyone for Quidditch?

Looking for an alternative to the games that shall not be named? It’s J.K. Rowling’s birthday, so why not give Quidditch a go?

Quidditch is a sport created by Rowling in the Harry Potter series of novels, which have now sold over 450 million copies and have been translated into 67 languages. The global popularity of the books has led to worldwide exposure for Quidditch, and even to this fictional sport being adapted for the Muggle (or non-wizard) population. It has also – along with other terms from the series – entered the vocabulary of fans all over the world.

Quidditch: a quick introduction

So what is Quidditch? In simple terms it can be viewed as a kind of wizard equivalent to football with each team consisting of seven players and four balls: the Quaffle, two Bludgers, and the Golden Snitch. Three Chasers throw and generally pursue the Quaffle in an attempt to score against the Keeper, who guards three hoops (the goals). Meanwhile two Beaters hit Bludgers at rival Chasers, and the Seeker (the position played by Harry Potter) does exactly what you might expect: seeks the Golden Snitch. Anyone still with me? Did I mention they are all riding flying broomsticks? I think the simplicity of the player labelling here is key as it helps the reader understand this complicated game. The names of the balls are certainly more peculiar, though it is likely that the Bludgers that are beaten across the pitch are named for the word bludgeon, meaning ‘to strike heavily’.

Etymologies: fact or fiction?

Rowling drew inspiration from many sources – such as mythology and Latin – in naming the characters and places of the Harry Potter series, but with Quidditch she went a step further. In her book, Quidditch Through The Ages, she actually created her own fictional etymologies for many of the terms in the sport. Rowling, under the pseudonym Kennilworthy Whisp (an excellent name likely inspired by Kenilworth in Warwickshire, England), describes the Golden Snitch as a contraction of the name of a bird that used to play that role in Quidditch – the Golden Snidget.

These origin stories show the depth of detail Rowling went into in the Harry Potter series. They could also be seen as rather a clever way of reinforcing Rowling’s fiction by adding an element of (invented) history to her subject. We also learn that the name Quidditch itself is derived from the place it was first played – Queerditch Marsh – but does this place exist? Google says no, but it has also been suggested that Quidditch could actually be simply an amalgamation of the names of the three different balls used in the game – the Quaffle, the Bludger, and the Golden Snitch.

The Holyhead Harpies vs. the Chudley Cannons

Rowling uses language to paint a picture of Quidditch in the reader’s mind through her character interaction concerning the game; their fierce loyalty to a particular team is very evocative of real-life sports. The names she uses act almost as allusions to teams from our own world: Puddlemere United to my mind has an immediate resonance with famous football team Manchester United. Allusions are a clever device as they allow the reader to make an association, helping a completely foreign concept seem familiar through the language used to set the scene. Further, nearly all the other Quidditch teams use alliteration in their name, which not only makes them more memorable to the reader but also solidifies that team element in the way a mascot might.

The team names themselves also help create an impression of the team in question without needing to hear anything more about them. The Holyhead Harpies have a name full of strong ‘H’ sounds and the very uttering of it implies that they are a force to be reckoned with. This is certainly backed up by the choice of the second word, ‘harpies’ – a devilish female creature from mythology – which also specifies that this is an all-witch team. By comparison at the bottom of the league sit the bumbling-sounding Chudley Cannons, with their motto “Let’s all just keep our fingers crossed and hope for the best”.

Rowling chooses these sorts of evocative names for many aspects of the series, not least the names of the Hogwarts Quidditch teams, which draw their names from the school houses, which in turn draw their names from the school founders – Godric Gryffindor, Helga Hufflepuff, Rowena Ravenclaw, and Salazar Slytherin. All of these names are alliterative and also represent certain character traits from the sounds of their names alone. The wonderfully sibilant Salazar Slytherin just oozes conniving brilliance and the house emblem of a snake solidifies this in the reader’s mind with its biblical connotations. The name Slytherin – inspired no doubt by the word ‘slithering’ – just emphasises the snake-like cunning of the students in this house. Much the same can be said about the aggressive consonants in Godric Gryffindor and Rowena Ravenclaw – you expect these people to be the cream of the crop, brave and brilliant. Helga Hufflepuff, however, conjures up the impression of a ‘Tim Nice but Dim’ of the wizarding world.

‘Quidditch’ in the Muggle world

Due to the vast and unprecedented popularity of the Harry Potter franchise Quidditch has escaped fiction and entered the real world. There is a Quidditch league in the US, with the Ivy League universities Harvard and Yale both boasting teams. Though it is hard to see this sport catching on – see this recent video of a Quidditch match in Oxford – it must be most gratifying to Rowling to have inadvertently created a sport that people actually play. How long can it be before Quidditch enters the English language for good? We’ll keep you posted, but with ‘Muggle’ already established, how many more coinages from Rowling’s magical world will end up invading our own?