The Latin Word(s) for “Muggle”

Yesterday I offered a brief rant about the apparent absence of the French neologism moldu for “Muggle” in the new Fantastic Beasts movie. I’m fascinated by foreign languages, and several years back, when my daughter was at the height of her Harry Potter fascination, I became interested in how some of the unique magical terminology of the books translated into various other languages. Today, I’d like to share a little bit of what I found, and some conjectures I was able to make from it in terms of an original Latin word for “Muggle.”

Two factors make it difficult to arrive at a Latin word for “Muggle.” First, several modern translations of Harry Potter into the Romance languages simply leave the English word untranslated. Frustratingly, this is also the case with Peter Needham’s Harrius Potter et philosophi lapis. Second, among the translations that go to the trouble of inventing a vernacular equivalent, the forms are widely divergent.

In what follows, I’ve observed the following conventions:

  • Words found in official Harry Potter translations are in boldface: Romanian încuiat.
  • Conjectural words arrived at through linguistic principles are preceded by an asterisk: Sicilian *babbanu. My knowledge of some of these languages is quite limited, and I’m happy to concede I may have applied the necessary sound changes incorrectly.
  • Conjectural words where the etymological root is itself open to debate are preceded by an asterisk and followed by a question mark: Norman French *muguel?

With that out of the way, let’s get started.

Eastern Romance Languages

The Romanian word for “Muggle” is încuiat, an archaic form of încuia, meaning “ignorant.” This, in turn, comes from Latin incuneatus, “wedged in,” hence “narrow(-minded)” or “ignorant.” We might propose an original sense of “ignorant of magic” or something similar.

Italo-Romance Languages

In Italian, we find the word babbano for a non-magical person. This word is suggestive of babbeo, “fool, idiot,” deriving from Latin balbus, “stammering, stuttering, fumbling.” A hypothetical Late Latin form *balbanus most likely lies behind babbano and might suggest incompetence at uttering incantations or casting spells.

Presumably the terms in Sicilian, Venetian, and other Italo-Romance languages are cognate to Italian babbano.

Gallo-Romance Languages

Harry Potter has been translated into two Gallo-Romance languages: Catalan and French. As far as I know, all translations into the languages of the Iberian Peninsula (such as Catalan) use the English word “muggle.” These languages will be considered in the next section.

In French, we find the word moldu, as I noted in my previous post. It is ultimately derived from Old French mol, meaning “soft” or “limp.” It is also vaguely possible that moldu was influenced by Proto-Celtic *meldo-, meaning “soft,” “humble,” or “mild-mannered.” The Gaulish form, used during Roman times, would be *moldos.

At any rate, in most of medieval France, the word for Muggle would have been moldu. We might, however, hypothesize that the Norman French dialect had a word something like *muguel, of Germanic origin.

The word in Occitan, spoken in the southern part of France, is most likely cognate to the indigenous Catalan term, whatever that should be.

Ibero-Romance Languages

In Brazilian Portuguese, we find the slang term trouxa, “gullible, sucker.” This word is related to Old Spanish troja or troxa “load, burden,” and only serves as a synonym for Muggle because of its colloquial secondary meaning.

Translations of Harry Potter into the languages of the Iberian Peninsula (Spanish, Catalan, and Iberian Portuguese) all use the word muggle. There doesn’t seem to be anything to gain by second-guessing the translators. They tell us that muggle is a perfectly acceptable Catalan, Spanish, or Portuguese word, so let’s take them at their word. For whatever reasons, these three languages have adopted the English term as a loanword and accept it as part of their indigenous vocabulary, much as Spanish speakers have also adopted Anglicisms like bisteca (“beefsteak”), fútbol (“football”), parking (“parking lot/car park”), etc. Perhaps in time, the spelling of “muggle” will be altered to conform to local conventions (e.g., in Spanish, it might become something like *móguel or *múguel).

But what did Spanish, Portuguese, and Catalan-speaking wizards call non-magical persons before adopting this English world? Almost certainly, it was a local derivative of one of the Latin words discussed above: mollis, *balbanus, or incuneatus. Since Spanish is often closer to Italian than to French, *balbanus-forms are most likely, though we can’t really rule out mollis-forms. I suspect incuneatus-forms would be highly unlikely, however.

Furthermore, given the precedent of French moldu, if the Ibero-Romance languages settled on a mollis-form, they may well have added an augmentative or pejorative suffix to their vernacular terms (Spanish muelle, Portuguese mole, Catalan moll, etc.). In Spanish, the Romance language with which I’m most familiar, the range possibilities is quite impressive: mollón, mollote, mollejo, mollucho, etc.

Summary

Here, then, are my best guesses for the local indigenous words for a non-magical person in various Romance languages, either attested in published translations or proposed on linguistic bases.

Eastern Romance
Romanian: încuiat

Italo-Romance
—Italo-Dalmatian
Italian: babbano
Sicilian: *babbanu

—Gallo-Italian
Lombard: *bauban
Venetian: *babban

Gallo-Romance
—Langues d’oc
Catalan: muggle (originally *balba? *mollo?)
Occitan: *balban? *molon? (or *moldu?)

—Langues d’oïl
French (Norman): *muguel?
French (Standard): moldu

Ibero-Romance
—Astur-Leonese
Asturian: *muggle? (originally *balbanu? *mollón?)

—Galician-Portuguese
Galician: *muggle? (originally *balbano? *molón?)
Portuguese (Brazil): trouxa (originally *balbão? *molão?)
Portuguese (Portugal): muggle (originally *balbão? *molão?)

—Spanish
Spanish: muggle (originally *balbano? *mollón? [*mollote, etc.?])

To conclude, there are three good candidates for the “original” Latin word for a non-magical person, incuneatus, *balbanus, and mollis. Incuneatus has the advantage of being an actual, attested Latin word. Mollis is also attested, but would seem to have a common enough meaning as to require some sort of modification (such as the French ending –du) to make it serve as a technical term. Similarly, balbus is an attested word modified by the adjectival ending–anus to form *balbanus.

At least to me, incuneatus has the least pejorative connotation. Perhaps we can propose a Classical Latin incuneatus and later, less “sophisticated” Vulgar Latin forms based on mollis and balbus. There are many other examples where Latin has both a “proper” and one or more “slang” words for the same thing: equus and caballus (“horse”), caput and testa (“head”), capsa, buxus, and scatula (“box”), etc. Romance languages draw their vocabulary sometimes from one side of the lexical pool and sometimes from the other.

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How Many Hit Points Does a 1st-Level Author Have?

A Facebook friend shared this article from the New Yorker a few days ago: “The Uncanny Resurrection of Dungeons & Dragons.” Apparently, D&D is growing in popularity forty-some years after it first hit the hobby store shelves. I won’t say D&D is cool again, though. It was never cool in the first place—that’s why I loved it!

According to Neima Jahromi, the author of the article, a “circle of life” story seems to be unfolding as at least some people are rediscovering forms of entertainment that don’t involve video screens and can even require sitting down at a physical table and interacting with one’s friends in real time. According to Jahromi,

In 2017, gathering your friends in a room, setting your devices aside, and taking turns to contrive a story that exists largely in your head gives off a radical whiff for a completely different reason than it did in 1987. And the fear that a role-playing game might wound the psychologically fragile seems to have flipped on its head. Therapists use D. & D. to get troubled kids to talk about experiences that might otherwise embarrass them, and children with autism use the game to improve their social skills. Last year, researchers found that a group of a hundred and twenty-seven role players exhibited above-average levels of empathy, and a Brazilian study from 2013 showed that role-playing classes were an extremely effective way to teach cellular biology to medical undergraduates.

I first played D&D in sixth grade at the invitation of a group of friends who thought it would be something I’d be interested in. The pitch, loosely paraphrased, began, “Now, don’t laugh, but the name of this game is ‘Dungeons and Dragons.’ It’s kind of hard to explain.” Intrigued, I showed up and was introduced to three tan booklets packed in a white box with a picture of a wizard blasting goblins (or something) on the front. (Thinking back, I can’t for the life of me remember who was there. I’m pretty sure we were playing in Bryan Beecher’s basement, though. As it turned out, these guys weren’t my go-to D&D buddies in years to come.)

I gave up D&D in college, mostly because I lacked the time. Second, third, fourth, and fifth edition passed me by without even making a blip on my personal radar. But when I started writing Into the Wonder, I started thinking of my worldbuilding tasks as if I were running a new campaign and trying to get my homebrew setting and house rules to work right. (I even managed to get a jokey D&D reference into the first book.)

Along the way, I discovered several other RPG systems and settings that helped me hone in on how magical creatures, powers, and artifacts might work in terms of the story I was trying to tell. Without even thinking about it, I began to accumulate the free PDFs and online extras you can find for GURPS supplements, Changeling: the Dreaming, and other settings and rule sets.

So now I’m working out the details of a different story world for a new set of characters with new sets of abilities. And for the first time, I’ve been experimenting with setting down at least some of this information intentionally in the form of a “rules supplement”-type document.

Along the way, I’ve discovered that a coworker, who has never really gotten into RPGs before (at least not seriously), has a growing interest because it’s something he has started doing with a group of friends outside of work.

And along the way, I have once again found myself bonding with a friend over a shared interest in a geeky hobby.

And also along the way, our conversations have led to exploring the possibility of me crafting a one-shot RPG session set in the world I’ve been creating for the past four or five months. Wouldn’t that be cool?

Funny how things circle around, right?

Six Faery Creatures Indigenous to the Americas

In honor of Indigenous Peoples Day, here is a brief rundown of some of the more interesting mythical beings associated with the native peoples of the Americas.

HUPIA

Hupias (or opias) stem from the folklore of the Taíno people of the Caribbean. They are said to be the spirits of the dead, although others claim the Taíno people believed the human spirit passed seamlessly to the hereafter, and that the “spirits of the dead” interpretation was the result of Christian missionaries imposing their theology upon the legend.

Hupias are believed to be able to assume many forms. In human form, they can always be distinguished by their lack of a navel. They are also associated with bats, and said to hide or sleep during the day and come out at night to eat guava fruit.

Hupias are also said to seduce women and kidnap people who venture outside after dark.

MAKIAWIS

The plural of mikiawis is makiawisug. These ancient beings are said to have lived under Mohegan Hill in Montville, Connecticut, since before the Mohegans arrived. They are also known in the folklore of the Wampanoag (or Massasoit) and Narragansett peoples, among whom they are sometimes called nikommo

Makiaswisug are sturdily built, but very short—often mistaken for children on the rare occasion that they are spotted by mortals. Despite their stocky, muscular appearance, they move with great grace and delicacy. They often demonstrate an affinity for stones and earth-magic generally. They are quite wise. Many medicine people among the Mohegan learned their skills from them.

Like many of the Fair Folk from Europe, makiawisug are not strictly malevolent, but it is unwise to offend them. They take great offense at people looking directly at them. One should not speak about them during the summer, the season when they are most active and wandering through the woods. At the same time, they are more likely to bring good fortune and supernatural assistance to those thow treat them respectfully. Among the Narragansetts and Wampanoags, the Nikommo feasts are held in their honor.

The makiawisug are willing to be helpful to those who leave them offerings. They prefer baskets of cornbread and berries, but sometimes they will also accept meat.

Their leader is called Granny Squannit, a very powerful and ancient being who has ruled the makiawisug since pre-Contact times. Her name was formerly pronounced Squauanit. She was revered as a goddess by the Algonquian peoples of New England. 

CURUPIRA

These beings from Tupi folklore of the Amazon region are noted for their red hair and their backwards-turned feet. They blend many features of West African and European faery-lore, and are usually regarded as demonic. They can create illusions and produce a sound like a high-pitched whistle in order to scare their victims and drive them to madness.

Curupiras are generally malevolent toward humans and enjoy luring to their doom hunters and poachers that take more than they need from the forest. They protect the animals of the forest. They are one of the few types of faery creature in the New World practice something that might be compared to the “Wild Hunt.”

These beings are sometimes depicted riding a collared peccary as a steed.

NIMERIGAR

Although benign races of small magical creatures exist in many Native American tribes, the “little people” of the Great Plains are most often depicted as dangerous cannibals. They are known to virtually every tribe in the region—and even as far west as the Rocky Mountains. Although nimerigar is a Shoshoni word, it has been borrowed by Plains Algoquians such as the Arapaho, Gros Ventre, and Cheyenne to refer to these creatures. They are called by a multitude of other names, including:

  • Gada’zhe, mong-thu-jah-the-gah, or ni’kashinga man’tanaha (Omaha-Ponca)
  • Hecesiiteihi (Arapaho, “little people”)
  • Iktomi (Sioux)
  • Mi’-a-gthu-shka or mialuka (Osage, “wild people”)
  • Nirumbee or awwakkulé (Crow)
  • Nunnupi or nunumbi (Comanche, “little person”)
  • Vo’estanehesano (Cheyenne)

These beings are dangerous and aggressive by nature. They have been known to kill their own kind with a blow to the head when they become too ill to contribute to society. They sometimes kidnap children or use their magical powers to harm people. They hunt with bows and poisoned arrows, and are able to inflict wounds without breaking the skin. They are, in fact, spirits of the hunt with strong ties to the arrow. They have their own villages, trails, and other places. They can only be seen when they want to be or are taken unawares.

Descriptions of these little folk vary somewhat from community to community. In Arapaho legend, they are immensely strong. According to the Omaha, they are tiny one-eyed cyclopes. The Crow see them with pot bellies and no necks.

Whatever the particulars, nimerigars are usually said to be the size of children (generally between two and four feet tall), dark-skinned, and extremely aggressive. Some storytellers say they have the power to turn themselves invisible, while others say they are hard to spot simply because they move with incredible speed. Some suggest that their warlike temperament comes because they must be killed in battle to reach the dwarf afterworld. Others believe that they are gluttons who habitually kill more than they can eat just because they can.

ESTE LOPOCKE

The little people of Muskogee folklore are especially known to appear to medicine people and guide them in finding the herbs they need. Encounters with these este lopocke (roughly pronounced ee-stee luh-putch-kee) are considered sacred and not to be shared.

The este lopocke live in hollow trees, on treetops, or on rocky cliffs. Their homes can be identified by an extra thick growth of small twigs of branches in the trees.

They are strong and handsome, with fine figures, and sometimes they allow themselves to be seen by a human being. One account describes a little person whose toenails are long, but whose hair is well kept—long but not dangling. Another story describes little people dressed in caps and carrying bows and arrows (David Lewis and Ann T. Jordan, Creek Indian Medicine Ways [2002] 148).

The Muskogee sometimes speak of the little people simply as “gee” (ce in normalized spelling) meaning “little,” so as to avoid using their full name. Even the helpful ones object to being mentioned in a negative light. Even questioning their existence might cause offense.

UWANI AZI

The name of these faery beings means “rock babies,” and they in fact live within rock surfaces, often near water. They are not as prevalent as “water babies,” another creature from California and the Great Basin, and some modern scholars theorize that the one is, in fact, an offshoot of the other. Both are said to be able to imitate the sound of a baby crying, which is taken as an evil omen.

Rock babies look like babies with short, black hair. They are believed to be responsible for many of the pictographs found in the Great Basin area, and they are never finished working on them—as indicated by their changing patterns. The pictographs of rocky babies are characterized by the use of at least five colors rather than the one or two colors used by humans. This rock art can be looked upon safely, but someone who touches them then rubs his eyes will not sleep again but will die in three days. Others say if one touches the rock art, one will go blind.

Rock babies are also called “mountain dwarves.” They are able to pass through solid rock as a portal between the spirit world and the mortal realm. For this reason, it is sometimes said that they actually live beneath the surface of the rock. They sometimes steal human babies and exchanging them for non-human look-alikes.

 

 

Lidércek: Three Hungarian Creatures that Share a Name

An incubus, from The Encyclopedia of Secret Knowledge (public domain)

I don’t speak a word of Hungarian. I am, however, intrigued that there are three distinct types of entities that Hungarians call lidérc (pl. lidércek) or “incubus.” In English, an incubus is a type of seductive demon that visits women in their sleep and inspires erotic dreams. The female counterpart is a succubus. Although there are aspects of this understanding in play here, especially with the “devil lover,” the term lidérc seems to cover a broader swath of supernatural territory.

The Földi Ördög

The first type of lidérc is also called földi ördög or “tiny devil” (pl. földi ördögök). Often in the form of a tiny man, this being serves as a kind of good luck charm—though at the price of a mortal’s soul. In exchange for the soul, the “tiny devil” bestows great riches and as well can make the recipient capable of performing extraordinary feats.

The Ördögszeretö

The second type of lidérc is is also known as the ördögszeretö or “devil lover” (pl. ördögszeretöek). It is sometimes called a ludvérc or a lucfir.

This being attaches itself to a mortal, but might then take one of two courses of action. First, it might decide to bring good luck and prosperity and even help with household chores. At night, however, the lidérc assails its “host” with wild, erotic dreams.

The second course of action is simply to drain the mortal “host” of life force. It appears every night to trouble the person with erotic dreams and sleep paralysis, eventually causing the victim to waste away.

Burning incense and birch branches keep the ördögszeretö from entering a house.

The Csodacsirke

The third type of lidérc is the csodacsirke (pl. csodacsirkék), literally the “miracle chicken.” This is the Hungarian equivalent of the firedrake or pisuhand, a fiery bird that sprinkles flames as it flies. This creature is said to hatch from the first black egg of a hen kept warm either under the arm of a human or in a heap of manure. Like the other lidércek described above, the csodacsirke attaches itself to a mortal and becomes his or her lover, but slowly drains the body of either blood or life force. (It can take the form of either a beautiful woman or a handsome man from the mortal’s past, as appropriate.)

The csodacsirke hoards gold, which it shares to make its owner rich. The only way to stop the lidérc is to make it do impossible chores such as bringing water from the well in a leaky bucket.

A Note about Fantasy “Races”

TL;DR: When differentiating between humans, elves, dwarves, etc., “kind” is preferable to “race.”

In much fantasy literature, we hear of various “races,” meaning elves, dwarves, orcs, and so forth.  The more I think about that terminology, the less I like it. A while back I looked at some of the fanciful humans or near-humans one encounters in the ancient and medieval geographies, populations traditionally called “monstrous races.” At that time, I took exception to that term because of the potentially hurtful connotations of both “monstrous” and “race.” In my introductory post, I wrote:

That can also be an awfully loaded term with a dubious past in pseudo-scientific pronouncements that attempted to justify the oppression and enslavement of some groups of human beings by other groups of human beings on the theory that some groups of human beings are naturally superior to others. Originally, a “race” (Latin gens, Greek ethnos) was simply a definable people-group: a tribe or culture, whether sparse or numerous, whether familiar or foreign. Even so, when talking about human beings—or supposed human beings—whose customs are disquieting or who possess animalistic traits, the word “race” can lead us down some paths we might not want to tread.

At that time, I wasn’t concerned with dwarves and the rest but only with cynocephali, monopods, and the like. But as I think of it, my concern with the word “race” still pertains and is perhaps even more pronounced when we use it to describe what makes Legolas different from Gimli.

It seems to me that “species” is an apter description of what these fantasy populations really are. There are clear genetic differences between elves, orcs, trolls, etc. Hybrid or mixed-lineage characters notwithstanding, the ability of at least some of these groups to interbreed seems at least problematic. That means we’re probably in the realm of using the term “race” to speak of what modern science would call a “species.” Dwarves are different from elves at a deep level that goes far beyond physical phenotype or genetic minutiae (e.g., blood types, lactose tolerance or intolerance, susceptibility to certain diseases, etc.). And explicitly, the term “race” is used to set certain groups apart from the “human race.” Once again, that doesn’t sit well with me.

Of course, “species”—a word used in English with a more or less precise scientific definition—doesn’t quite seem at home in a fantasy setting. Fortunately, there is a good English term from the pre-industrial era that can carry the same weight. That word is “kind.” In the King James Version of the Bible (1611), we read,

And God said, Let the earth bring forth the living creature after his kind, cattle, and creeping thing, and beast of the earth after his kind: and it was so. And God made the beast of the earth after his kind, and cattle after their kind, and every thing that creepeth upon the earth after his kind: and God saw that it was good. (Genesis 1:24-25, emphasis added)

“Kind” is thus, roughly speaking, an early English equivalent to what we usually understood by “species” today. I know I’ve read fantasy stories that speak of “Elfkind” or “Dwarfkind.” Perhaps it’s time to retire the idea of “race” as it is used in the genre and speak of “fantasy kinds” (or “fantasy kindreds”) instead.

What do you think?