Archives     Dictionary    HOME

August 2005 Archives

Harry Potter, Book I: bezoar, (monkshood, wolfsbane, aconite, trichophagia trichobezoar); dumbledore (albus); smelt; viridian (virid, vindictive); dittany; olivander/olivaster; pince-nez

Potter words; later books: enervate (innervate); pouf (witenagemot); conjunctivitis; frisson; replete; umbrage



Harry Potter, Book I

This week marked the release of the sixth Harry Potter book, with all due hullabaloo. So we'll treat you to Harry Potter words, and try to give you a taste of author J.K. Rowling's wit and wordplay. Unless otherwise noted, all words come from the first Potter book.

Our scene opens at Hogwarts School of Magic, where the new students, age 11, nervously attend their first class in Potions, with Professor Snape.


"Potter!" said Snape suddenly. [He poses a question.] Hermione's hand had shot into the air. "I don't know, sir," said Harry.
     Snape's lip curled into a sneer. "Let's try again, Potter. Where would you look if I told you to find me a bezoar?" Hermione stretched her hand as high into the air as it would go without leaving her seat. Harry didn't have the faintest idea what a bezoar was. "I don't know, sir."
     Snape was still ignoring Hermione's quivering hand. "What is the difference, Potter, between monkshood and wolfsbane?" At this Hermione stood up, her hand stretching toward the ceiling. "I don't know," said Harry quietly. "I think Hermione does, though, why don't you try her."
     Snape was not pleased. "Sit down," he snapped at Hermione. "For your information, Potter,
a bezoar is a stone taken from the stomach of a goat and it will save you from most poison. As for monkshood and wolfsbane, they are the same plant, which also goes by the name of aconite. Well? Why aren't you copying that down?"


A reader notes: Bezoar is indeed an interesting word. It can occur in humans, too, as a result of trichophagia (chronic pulling and eating of hair) and then is usually called trichobezoar. It is a loanword from Persian, padzahr, meaning 'protection from poison'.

The proper names that Rowling invents are often plays on words. Some are obvious, such as Professor Sprout, who teaches herbology. Others are more subtle. Consider Albus Dumbledore, the headmaster of the school.

dumbledore – a bumble-bee
Rowling has said that she chose this name because she imagined Dumbledore walking around the castle, humming to himself.


Is it not the humble-bee, or what we call the ‘dumble dore’ a word whose descriptive droning deserves a place in song? – Southey (thanks go to OED for the quote)


By the way, albus is an epithet used in biology, meaning 'white': asphodelus albus.

Dudley will attend a school called Smeltings.

That name is a triple pun. In one sense it speaks of a finishing school, teaching refinement.
smelt – to extract metals from ore, by heating; to refine

But the other senses convey that it's a poor school indeed. They call up an image of smelly, stinking fish.
smelt – (British form of) past tense and past participle of 'smell'
smelt – a small silvery fish

By the way, this schooling is an example of how the Potter books have different British and US English editions, due to differing British and US usage.

British: Dudley had a place at Uncle Vernon's old school, Smeltings. Harry, on the other hand, was going to Stonewall High, the local comprehensive.
U.S.: Dudley had been accepted at Uncle Vernon's old private school, Smeltings. Harry, on the other hand, was going to Stonewall High, the local public school.


Want a diabolical revenge on your enemies? Feeling vindictive (seeking revenge? Then the book for you is Curses and Countercurses: Bewitch Your Friends and Befuddle Your Enemies with the Latest Revenges: Hair Loss, Jelly-Legs, Tongue-Tying, and Much Much More, by Vindictus Viridian.

viridian - a bluish-green color
virid - bright green
[Latin viridis 'green']

The author's name thus conjures up the notion of being 'green with envy', and of the the green-eyed monster (jealousy) of Shakespeare’s Othello.


dittany – an aromatic woolly plant of Crete, akin to oregano, formerly used medicinally.

[After Mt. Dicte in Crete.]


It was also believed to have a magical powers to expel weapons imbedded in soldiers. Aristotle relates that wild goats seek out the dittany plant after being struck by arrows.

Notice Rowling's wordplay on "look up".


Harry, who was looking up "Dittany" in One Thousand Magical Herbs and Fungi, didn't look up until he heard Ron say, "Hagrid! What are you doing in the library?"


Today we have an even-more-obscure form of an extremely obscure word.

olivander (more commonly, olivaster) – olive-coloured (particularly as to complexion); with an easily-tanned or Mediterranean skin


Sloe-eyed, olivaster Senorita Juana Ugarte, Queen of the Carnival, approached the Royal box. Edward of Wales jumped to his feet. "Not in many years have we been so diverted!" cried he.
– Time Magazine, Mar. 2, 1931


In the Potter books, Mr. Ollivander (double-l) is a master maker of magic wands. Can anyone suggest why author Rowling might have selected this name for him?


The school librarian is Madam Pince, whose name is French for "pinch". (Do the librarians on our board think the name is apt?) The French word is also part of an English term that Rowling uses in Book Two.

pince-nez – eyeglasses without earpieces, that instead clip to the nose by a spring
[literally, "pinch-nose" in French]


the Ministry is conducting more raids," said Mr. Malfoy, taking a roll of parchment from his inside pocket and unraveling it for Mr. Borgin to read. "I have a few — ah — items at home that might embarrass me, if the Ministry were to call.…"
Mr. Borgin fixed a pair of pince-nez to his nose and looked down the list.



Potter words; later books

enervate – to weaken physically, mentally or morally (can also be used as an adjective)
This is a tricky word, as we'll see after the first set of quotes


… the concern of the ever-paranoid Stalin that he was just being used to enervate Germany while enduring an unlimited bloodbath himself could quite comprehensibly drive him to compose his differences with Hitler …
– Conrad Black, Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom

The Tory party, that mighty instrument, the most formidable fighting machine in political history, has become despondent, enervate and spineless.
–Bruce Anderson, The Independent, Sep. 22, 2003
A reader notes: I don't think enervate (pace the dear Brits) is properly an adjective, either.


Many folks, Rowling included, mistakenly use enervate to mean energize – the direct opposite. Though the words seem similar, they have entirely different roots. Energize is from Greek energos, active. Enervate is from Latin nervus, sinew; the e- prefix is a negator as in emasculate. Indeed, an old and rare meaning of enervate was emasculate.)

Here are examples of Rowling misusing (and modifying) enervate in her fourth Potter book, plus another misuse by a Hollywood idol.


"My elf has been stunned." Diggory raised his own wand, pointed it at Winky, and said, "Ennervate!" Winky stirred feebly. Her great brown eyes opened.

Krum was sprawled on the forest floor. He seemed to be unconscious. Then Dumbledore bent over Krum again, pointed his wand at him, and muttered, "Ennervate." Krum opened his eyes. He looked dazed.

"He is simply Stunned, Winky. Step aside, please. … " Dumbledore … pointed his wand at the man's chest and said, "Ennervate." Crouch's son opened his eyes. His face was slack, his gaze unfocussed.

the Democratic National Convention … Cambridge-spawned super-Democrat Ben Affleck again misused the word "enervate" … . He told the noisy gang that "on the whole, I believe it's been a very successful and enervating and exciting convention."
– Sarah Rodman, Boston Herald, July 30, 2004


A reader notes: Innervate means somewhat the opposite of enervate (1. to supply with nerves 2. to stimulate [a nerve or body part]), and sounds much the same.


pouf – a low stuffed or padded seat or cushion

(A British reader notes: I would normally spell the word pouffe. )

We see poufs in the fourth and fifth Potter books, where the students have a class in Divination.


Lavender Brown and Parvati Patil, who deeply admired professor Trelawney, were sitting on poufs very close to her.

Ron looked around carefully, spotted Harry and made directly for him, or as directly as he could while having to wend his way between tables, chairs and overstuffed poufs.


Bonus word:
– a council of high churchmen and nobility of Anglo-Saxon England, ~700 to 1200 A.D., convened periodically to advise the King
[Old English wita councilor + gemot meeting]

Rowling puns on witenagemot in her fifth book.


They've demoted him from Chief Warlock on the Wizengamot — that's the Wizard High Court …

A reader notes: … witan as the first part of the word, that having been something like the national council of advisers to the king in Anglo Saxon times. English historical mythology has great fun with this idea, making it out that the wit, scholars shorthand for it, was the mother of all Parliaments and of liberalism itself. A lot can rest on etymology - history, politics, belief systems, worldviews... cold wars, hot wars.

conjunctivitis – inflamation of the eye-membrane (called the conjunctiva) that covers the eyeball and lines the eyelid

Rowling, seeking to educate and instruct her readers, provides practical data should the reader ever encounter a dragon. Harry uses magic to defeat a Hungarian Horntail dragon, and soon after he receives a letter.


Dear Harry,
Congratulations on getting past the Horntail. I was going to suggest a Conjunctivitis Curse, as a dragon's eyes are its weakest point, but your way was better. I'm impressed.


A reader notes: And of course the layman's term for conjunctivitis is pink eye. I can just envision a dragon with conjunctivitis...those great big eyes all inflammed and pinkish and filled with yellowish drainage. Yuk!


frisson - a sudden thrill of fear, or other excitement [from French for 'shiver']
replete - filled or well-supplied, esp. with food

Rowling contrasts the two in here fifth book (here somewhat amended for brevity).


Three helpings of rhubarb crumble and custard later and the waistband on Harry's jeans was feeling uncomfortably tight. Mr. Weasley was leaning back in his chair, looking replete and relaxed, Tonks was yawning widely ... "Nearly time for bed, I think."
     Said Sirius, turning to Harry, "I'm surprised at you. I thought the first thing you'd do when you got here would be to start asking questions about Voldemort."
     The atmosphere in the room changed with rapidity ... Where seconds before it had been sleepily relaxed, it was now alert, even tense. A frisson had gone around the table at the mention of Voldemort's name.


The "Harry Potter" theme will be a transition to the new theme that will start tomorrow.
umbrage – offence or resentment at a slight or insult
Typically in the phrase take umbrage. Some say 'take umbrage at'; others 'take umbrage with'; still others 'take umbrage to'.


Some coaches would take umbrage to torrents of criticism, or even the mildest objection. Bellefeuille is not of that ilk.
– Rob Vanstone, The Leader-Post (Canada), Aug. 31, 2005


The Potter connection is Dolores Umbridge, a major character in the fifth Potter book, who comes Hogwarts School from the Ministry of Magic. Her name would be appropriate if she were easily offended. But she is not: she is a simpering, controlling woman of sugary voice, who treats the students "as though they were five years old".

Why then does Rowling give her that name? The answer will come tomorrow, as we start our new theme.