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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The French Word for “Muggle”

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?

Zut alors!

“Rowling is Better than Shakespeare”

I respectfully disagree with Max Freeman’s titular assertion, but I nevertheless endorse the substance of his post.

Tell me if you’ve ever read these stories before:

– A young male sociopath disapproves of everyone and everything around him, including any of his romantic interests. He changes nothing, learns nothing, and leaves.

– It’s the olden days, and terrible things are happening to good people. Terrible things continue to happen for 200 – 400 pages. Despite all this tragedy, there is little to no story, and no character development. Everyone is either 100% good or 100% bad, from start to finish. In the end, things either get marginally better, or they don’t.

– Wow, what a great dog! Whoops, he’s dead. (Or every character besides the dog is dead.)

– A metaphor commits a metaphor to another metaphor. Everyone is sad.

Do any of these scenarios sound familiar to you? If you went to high school in America, I bet the answer is a big yes. In fact, I bet these few plots encompass around 90% of everything you and I were both forced to read in English class while growing up….

Listen, I’m all for supporting good literature, but it’s not the wordiness or length of these “classics” that put people off. It’s their DULL, unlikeable characters. Wordiness and length didn’t keep kids from reading Harry Potter, did it?

We really need to expand our horizons and incorporate some more fantasy and sci-fi into our kids’ reading. Not only does it expand their imaginations, and introduce memorable characters and journeys, but so many of them are well written too. Here are some humble suggestions.

Some Random Observations on “History of Magic in North America”

This past week, J. K. Rowling has sketched out a “History of Magic in North America” in four brief daily installments. As you may have heard, Native Americans have expressed disapproval at how their culture is depicted especially in the first of these snippets. (Yes, I’m quite aware Native Americans represent more than one culture; that’s part of the problem.) Others have found these essays wanting for other reasons. Though I am unwilling to call it a “travesty from start to finish,” I do believe it is a disappointing effort. Given the nature of this blog, I thought I owed it to my readers to share a few random observations on the matter.

1. J. K. Rowling Is Not the Devil

On the contrary, she strikes me as a considerate and thoughtful person. She has certainly inspired many, both through her personal story and the stories she has written for the world. My daughter is a great Harry Potter fan—as am I. I will continue to enjoy Harry Potter, and I look forward to seeing Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find them, though I will admit that “History of Magic in North America” has caused me some misgivings about how this latest project will shape up…

2. J. K. Rowling Doesn’t Seem to “Get” America

I’m sure she has visited the States on many occasions. She probably has American friends. But her account of wizarding history in North America strikes me as somewhat tone deaf. As but one example, Rowling makes Puritanism and the Salem witch trials of 1692 a benchmark for all of wizarding North America with hardly a thought to the facts that (1) other colonies had different religious sensibilities and were founded purely in the interests of economic gain and (2) England, Scotland, and other parts of Europe were undergoing their own bouts of witch hysteria in this same era.

I understand this is most likely done to set up the plot of the Fantastic Beasts movie, but it strikes me as presenting a “theme-park” version of American history. One of the things I enjoy about Harry Potter is how British wizarding culture builds upon, parallels, and even satirizes British Muggle culture. For instance, even as a non-Brit, I know a bit about “A-Levels” in the British education system and can chuckle at their corresponding wizarding “OWLs.” It looks to me like Rowling has written the history of wizarding America in such a way that these parallels are not likely to exist, which is likely to diminish my enjoyment of Fantastic Beasts.

3. America’s History of Racial Violence Should Be Handled with Great Care

I’m not going to say Native American beliefs and folklore concerning magic, fantastic beasts, and so forth are off limits for fantasy writers. Nor, for that matter, should be the mythology of West Africans brought to North America as slaves. To be honest, leaving these elements out strikes me as more colonialistic than including them. Writing off black, Native American, or other non-white contributions to American life and culture leaves a story at best only half-told.

The challenge, especially for someone of European descent (something Ms. Rowling and I have in common), is to listen to these other cultures and go the second mile in attempting to depict them with dignity and integrity. Lumping all Native Americans together in one monolithic culture doesn’t do that. Neither do references to Native American medicine men as charlatans who only “fake” having supernatural powers. Nor do comments about Native Americans excelling at animal and plant-based magic, especially when paired with the observation that Europeans introduced the wand to North America. To me, this sounds like Native American wizards have plenty of raw power, but need the refinement and sophistication provided by European wand technology. I hope I don’t have to go into why that leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

4. Fanfic Might Have Fixed Some of This

Disclaimer #1: At least 90% of all fan fiction is crap.

Disclaimer #2: I have written my fair share of Harry Potter fan fiction.

But here’s the thing. Lots of Americans  have wanted an American version of Harry Potter’s wizarding world for years, and some of them have wanted it enough to write their own. There is even a community at fanfiction.net for Potter stories set in America. Some of these spin out entirely new characters and settings in a world that is clearly the same as the one inhabited by Harry, Ron, Hermione, and the rest. Some of them send familiar characters across the Atlantic for new adventures in the States.

What makes even bad America in the Potterverse fanfic worthwhile is that it is all written by Americans. This means that even unimaginative, half-cocked stories depict an authentically American vision of what Magic in North America might be like.

I’m not saying Ms. Rowling should have done her research at fanfiction.net! (Heaven forfend!) I am suggesting, however, that it would not have been too difficult for her to have found some thoughtful American fans to take “History of Magic in North America” for a test drive and point out aspects that didn’t quite ring true.

An Eighth Harry Potter Book

To be precise, it is the script book for the stage play, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. And it’s set to be released sometime this summer. According to Pottermore:

Readers and moviegoers last saw Harry waving off his children at Platform Nine and Three-Quarters, 19 years after the Battle of Hogwarts, in the epilogue to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child picks up after that moment and is staged in two parts, due to the ‘epic nature of the story’.

I’m assuming a “script book” is the script of the play bound in book form. If that’s not correct, I’d appreciate someone enlightening me.