What do you Call a French Muggle?

Un non-magique, apparently.

Before I go any farther, I should explain that I’m talking about Harry Potter.

I won’t pretend to be an expert on the subject. I’ve never read the books, though I’ve seen all the films and they’re OK, apart from the first two and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which I didn’t really care for.

My interest was piqued though, when I read somewhere recently that it had been revealed what the French translation of muggle (the wizarding term for a person with no magical abilities) would be in the upcoming Fantastic Beasts film. And to reiterate, that term is non-magique, quite simply the French for non-magic/non-magical.

If you’re a Harry Potter expert, you might be aware that this is quite similar to the American wizards’ term for muggle: no-maj (short for no-magic). The revelation of this term a few years ago was somewhat controversial. Some accused J.K Rowling of putting an offensively unimaginative and silly-sounding word in the mouths of American wizards (I could never have predicted I’d end up writing that sentence).

I can understand that. Compared to muggle, it’s quite straightforward, it’s meaning is very clear, and it just doesn’t sound as cute as muggle.

That being said though, as a (fictional) American-English word, there’s a certain logic to it. A lot of American English is based on the concepts of clarity and simplicity. Think about how words end in -er to replicate how they sound, or how U is removed from so many words whose sound remains the same without it. And American English tends to feature more abbreviations, like no-maj.

Muggle on the other hand, like so many everyday English words of Germanic origin, is short and blunt in comparison, and its meaning isn’t obvious by looking at it out of context.

I find non-magique to be similarly logical. Like a lot of Latin-based words, its meaning is pretty clear to an English speaker by looking at it. It’s part of system in which similar words tend to have similar meanings and etymologies, and recognisably similar English words. And like a lot of French words and phrases, it’s longer than its English equivalent.

I’m not sure if J.K Rowling put as much thought into these words as I just have, though I suspect she did. Looking at a lot of magical terms in the Harry Potter books, it’s clear that she’s something of a language buff. Most of the terms for magic spells are Latin, or at least very similar to it. Aberto (yes, the first one in the list of Harry Potter spells I’ve just googled) is the spell for opening things. It’s clearly inspired by the Latin apertus (open), and is identical to the Portuguese aberto, also meaning open.

The famous Patronus charm also has a pretty clear meaning when you squint at it a little. The wizard has to shout Expecto Patronum, with (spoiler alert?) Expecto clearly meaning expel, or push outward, and Patronum related to words like patron and patron saint, and the concept of protection. If you’re familiar with the adventures of Harry and friends, that should make sense to you.

Lord Voldemort (He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named) also has a very interesting name. It’s directly inspired by French, and could have a few subtly different meanings. Vol can mean to fly or to steal, and de can be either from or of. Mort is death, so his name could mean flight/fly from death, flight of death, stealing death or stealing/steal from death. And again, if you’re familiar with him, you can decide which of those makes the most sense.

I think it’s also no surprise that Albus Dumbledore’s first name means white in Latin.

But Harry of course, has a relatively commonplace English name. I suspect that was also a deliberate choice, to make him relatable, and show how even an ordinary boy can have amazing hidden depths. Potter of course, is an everyday English surname in the sense that, like so many, it’s named after an occupation of one of his ancestors. Unless of course in the books Harry actually makes lots of amazing magical pots, in which case his name is quite logical.

So no, I’m not the greatest Harry Potter fan, but I am very grateful for the linguistic food for thought the books have given me.

11 thoughts on “What do you Call a French Muggle?

  1. So many pots, man, you don’t even know.

    …come to think of it, apart from the Patronus, the only thing I can remember him ‘making’ was a Luck potion, and even then he was following someone else’s recipe.

    Liked by 1 person

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