Apparently, the second Fantastic Beasts movie, set in France, reveals that the French word for Muggle is “non-magique.” In other words, “non-magical.” This makes me très, très triste.
That’s because there has already been a canonical French word for Muggle for many years: moldu. That, at least, is how the term was translated in French editions of the Harry Potter books.
What’s a moldu, you ask? It’s a neologism—and a darn good one! The mol– element is most likely derived from Latin mollis, “soft,” by way of Old French mol, “soft, limp.” But what about the –du? I think it’s most likely a slang suffix, perhaps slightly pejorative, but not as much as other possible terms such as *molasse or *molard might be.
In other words, the French translations of Harry Potter invented a new word that means something like “softy” and used it for Muggles.
And this is actually very similar to the original English word in meaning. English “Muggle” is a good Germanic word with an ancient pedigree—which makes the American term no-maj all the more exasperating! Muggle’s Germanic origin is evidenced not only by its phonology and likely etymology but also by the fact that most other Germanic languages use a cognate term, to judge by their translations of the Potter books.
The element mug– appears in a number of English words, both historically and today. “Mug” is a slang term for a dupe or a fool. A “muggins” is a simpleton. “Muggle” as used by wizards is possibly related to Old Norse mjukr, “soft, pliant,” but almost certainly to be derived ultimately from Proto-Germanic *meukaz (cf. Gothic *muka, “soft, humble”). It is etymologically related to the word “meek.”
The –le at the end is most likely a diminutive suffix (cf. –l, –ele-, –le, –li, –lein, etc. in High German dialects). I believe Rowling has in fact stated in an interview that she added this suffix in order to make the word “more cuddly.”
So, once again, we end up with a literal meaning something like “softy,” with a slang suffix attached—though this time to make the term somewhat less pejorative.
As I noted, almost all Germanic languages use a cognate term: German Muggel, Danish muggler, etc. We can fairly safely propose an early Northwest Germanic word *mugga or *muggel, which becomes *muggel in Old English, a thousand or more years ago.
Two Germanic languages apparently developed slang terms that eventually became mainstream. In Dutch, we find dreuzel, perhaps related to treuzel (“slow person”), and the Norwegian word is gomp, of uncertain derivation (cf. Old Norse *gumpr, “buttock, rump”?).
I know Ms. Rowling gets to write her stories however she wants, but would it kill her to examine the work her (contracted, authorized) translators have already done?