The Harry Potter words on our radar
Merlin’s beard! Could it really have been twenty years since Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was first published? J.K. Rowling’s series about the boy wizard and his mortal enemy Lord Voldemort has had an unquestionably huge cultural impact across the globe. And as we have seen twice before with muggle and quidditch, the literary phenomenon has also had its own impact on the English language.
In honour of the series’ 20th anniversary, we explore some of the language of Harry Potter, and the related neologisms that we are currently tracking; if they gather enough evidence of widespread usage, these words could be joining muggle and quidditch in our dictionaries.
Quaffle, bludger, and the Golden Snitch
With the rise of non-magical quidditch, there is a question of whether we might need to add entries for words that are unique to the game. There are three different kinds of ball in quidditch: a quaffle, used to score goals; three bludgers, aimed at players to ‘knock them off their brooms’; and the Golden Snitch, an elusive ball that must be caught to end the game. If the game of quidditch becomes more mainstream, these specialist terms might also become more widely used, and so meet the requirements for inclusion in our dictionaries.
Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans and butterbeer
Quidditch is not the only one of Rowling’s magical creations to be seen this side of Diagon Alley: it is possible to purchase a box of Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans and a tankard of butterbeer at Harry Potter themed attractions. And if you don’t want to travel so far, there are recipes online so you can make your own butterbeer at home.
Wizard rock, or W-rock
And perhaps while supping your butterbeer, you’ll want to take in a wizard rock show. This subgenre of rock music features (usually humorous) songs where the lyrics are inspired by Harry Potter. In the manner of J-pop, its name is sometimes shortened to W-rock or Wrock. The bands tend to take their inspiration for names from characters, places, or magical objects from the Harry Potter universe. A few of the wizard rock bands playing on muggle stages take their musical inspiration from the in-universe Weird Sisters and play the bagpipes, lute, and cello, alongside the more traditional guitar, bass, and drums.
Polyjuice Potion, Felix Felicis, and Veritaserum
Not all of Rowling’s inventions are so easily transferred into the muggle world, but that doesn’t stop the words for them evolving beyond their original magical meaning. Though us muggles have yet to master the art of potions, several of Rowling’s mystical brews lend their names to more mundane topics.
Take, for example, Polyjuice Potion (which uses the combining form ‘poly-’ meaning ‘many’ or ‘much’). When supped by Harry Potter and his friends, this brew transforms their appearance into that of someone else – someone whose hair, toenail clippings, or other body parts were used as an ingredient. In our New Words Corpus, we are seeing uses of Polyjuice Potion to refer allusively to a whole body transformation or a dramatic makeover, or else an uncanny likeness between two people.
If a situation calls for luck, we are starting to see a handful of appeals for Felix Felicis, the potion known as Liquid Luck in the world of Harry Potter because it makes the drinker incredibly lucky for a short period of time. In reference to the potion’s desirable effects – and its laborious and devilishly tricky brewing process – it is also sometimes used to denote something of great value.
In the same way, when someone desperately wants the truth out of someone, they might wish for a vial of Veritaserum, a potion that causes the drinker to answer questions with complete honesty. This is another potion that we are seeing in our corpus in more extended contexts, where before people may have simply spoken of a truth serum or truth drug.
Time-Turner, Pensieve, and the Mirror of Erised
Stepping out of Snape’s dungeons, there are many more names of magical objects that are now used as stand-ins for the abilities the objects possess. If someone regrets something greatly, or has more to do than can be achieved in the time given, rather than wish they could turn back the clock, we are seeing some instances of them wishing for a Time-Turner. First introduced in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, this object has returned in the Harry Potter stage production, bringing it into further prominence amongst fans. This increased standing is reflected in continuing use, even when Harry Potter is not being discussed.
Another way to revisit the past in the Harry Potter universe – although this time as a mere spectator – is to view memories that have been placed in a Pensieve. The idea of something able to contain memories is an evocative one, and consequently this is another word being used in wider contexts, though less so than Time-Turner. Similarly evocative is the Mirror of Erised: this mirror reveals one’s deepest desires (Erised being Desire in reverse, as images are reversed when reflected in mirrors). The term taps into the current trend of taking online quizzes to reveal truths about ourselves, though again while it has not caught on as much as Time-Turner, there is some evidence of broader usage.
Patronus, Sorting Hat, and the Hogwarts houses
Of course, more revealing still than the Mirror of Erised would be a Patronus: when cast by a witch or wizard, this is a protective charm that takes on the form of an animal reflecting the caster’s personality. In extended use, the word Patronus can refer either to an animal seen as representative of someone’s character, or to a guardian or protector.
Another way to find out (more broadly) what sort of person you are would be to try on the Sorting Hat. On arrival at Hogwarts for the first time, students try on the Sorting Hat, which looks inside their heads and announces which of the four school Houses they belong in, based on the reputations the Houses have. There is something irresistible about being impartially judged as brave (Gryffindor), loyal (Hufflepuff), clever (Ravenclaw), or evil – I mean cunning (Slytherin). The names of the houses themselves have come to be ways for people to identify what sort of person they are, or even what sort of person they’d like to be (though many Potter fans cannot resist the lure of being in Gryffindor, the same house as the book’s hero). Any means of discovering which House is one’s home is naturally referred to as a Sorting Hat.
Horcruxes and He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named
Of course, not all of the objects in the Harry Potter universe are used for good. One of the most deplorable is the Horcrux, a receptacle used to contain a piece of a witch or wizard’s soul, divided from the magician through murder, and consequently granting them a measure of immortality. In the world of Harry Potter, it is the evil Lord Voldemort who creates Horcruxes, and so referring to someone’s Horcrux is a short hand way of accusing them of being an evil megalomaniac. It might also be used to denote an object into which one has more figuratively poured one’s heart and soul, without the need for any murders.
Unlike witches and wizards at the height of his prime, I have been so bold as to call Lord Voldemort by his self-styled title. Because of the brutality of Lord Voldemort’s reign, the magical community fears voicing his name, and so refer to him as either He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named or You-Know-Who. You-Know-Who is already in the OED, with evidence as far back as the 16th century. He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, on the other hand, has no such entry, but is definitely seeing a life of its own to refer to any person who the speaker does not wish to identify, or – increasingly commonly – does not want to dignify with a mention.
Further evidence of the productivity of this phrase is lexical creativity: we are seeing examples of She-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, They-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, and even one off instances referring to – for example – The-Company-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named after a particularly embarrassing or heinous act. Unlike You-Know-Who, He (etc.)-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named is not neutral: it implies a judgement on the person remaining unnamed, much like f-word implies that the word is unmentionable rather than merely secret, a phenomenon discussed on our blog here.
Not all of the Harry Potter words currently on our radar originated with Rowling, however. Much as Trekkie is used to denote fans of the science fiction programme Star Trek, fans of Harry Potter have their own name. We are – apparently – Potterheads, a pun on pothead. This word has been around since at least 2000, back when fans were queueing up for the release of the fourth book, and continues to be popular to this day. After twenty years, the love for Harry Potter does not seem to be disapparating, and so it looks like the term for its fans will not be going anywhere either, making it a likely candidate for future inclusion in our online dictionaries.
So, fellow Potterheads, which of these Potter-inspired terms do you think will be next to join muggle and quidditch in our Oxford Dictionaries? Are there any you use that we’ve missed? Share your favourites in the comment section below!