Peculiar vocabulary in the Harry Potter books

Lucie Skrčená


When writing a fantasy story, a writer must build up a new world. Such a writer usually wants to come up with something original and develop their own vocabulary. It is a vast land where one can get endless inspiration.

Keywords: blend, archaism, Harry Potter, Cambridge and Oxford dictionaries, etymology


If you’ve read the Harry Potter books, you might have wondered whether words such as dementor, Quidditch, Squibs, Mudblood, Muggles and Dumbledore had already existed or whether they are words invented by the author, J. K. Rowling. This article will deal with these words and reveal their etymological and literary background. You may well be surprised that two of these words have made it into the Cambridge and Oxford dictionaries. Now it’s time for you to make a guess.

Old-fashioned or out of use/date words

The first word we are going to look at is Squib. It was a word used in the 16thcentury and it meant firecracker.Early on it got another meaning, which Rowling used for her story – a petty or insignificant person.

Another old word no longer used is the name of the Hogwarts headmaster. Dumbledoremeansbumblebee. In an interview with Christopher Lydon on WBRU Radio in 1999, Rowling said she had always imagined Albus Dumbledore humming to himself a lot, as he was very fond of music.

The last word in this category is Muggle, a quite informal word used for sweetheart in the 17thcentury. Rowling coined it for the Harry Potter world, probably also having based it on the earlier noun mug, i.e. a foolish or stupid person.


Rowling’s coinages

A metaphor for depression, dementor, was popularized by Rowling, who suffered from clinical depression. The word comes from the Latin adjective demens, which means out of one’s mind or senses, mad, raving, foolish.

After a quarrel with a then-boyfriend, Rowling invented a game that all the magic world knows as Quidditch. It is possible that she was inspired by a term that Scholastic philosophy uses for “that which distinguishes a thing from other things”, literally “whatness”, i.e. quiddity.

The last word presented in this article is Mudblood, which is a pejorative term for a witch or a wizard whose parents do not and cannot do magic (Muggles). In today’s urban English, however, it is a variant of mud shark, a white woman dating black men because of low self-esteem.



As I mentioned at the beginning, two of the above words have made it into the Cambridge and Oxford dictionaries. Have you guessed right? The first one is Quidditch, and the reason is quite simple: it is now a real sport, played by seven people on broomsticks. The other one is Muggle. It has a more general use, referring to “a person who seems to have no supernatural skill or a person who doesn’t have expertise or experience in a field”.

There are certainly more peculiar words in the Harry Potter books. The ones I have chosen are an illustration of how new words can be created and bring a beautiful piece of literature to perfection.


Sources and Citations