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Howard Richler

News of the Lexical World Add to ...

He [Rupert Murdoch] could have been Dumbledore crossed with Harry Potter. But he’s Voldemort, and he’s not vanquished yet.

– Tina Brown

Rebekah Brooks has resigned! News of the World extinct! Only four horcruxes left to go and Murdoch will be mortal again.

Tweet by freelancer Ed Yong

With the release of the film Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, it’s time to finally bury Darth Vader as the apotheosis of evil. Long live the new übervillain, Lord Voldemort! We are indeed living in a Potter universe when media baron Rupert Murdoch is described in Potteresque terms.

Due to Voldemort’s nefarious powers, other wizards are afraid of summoning him, in a manner similar to the Tetragrammaton, the Hebrew word written YHWH that was often substituted for the ineffable name of God and treated as a mysterious symbol of God. Thus, Voldemort is also called “He Who Must Not Be Named.” This designation is useful in describing someone whose name should not be mentioned. Linguist/lexicographer Ben Zimmer, who runs the website Visual Thesaurus, says he knows a woman who refers to her ex-husband as He Who Must Not Be Named, and her sisters sometimes shorten this to Voldemort.

For the uninitiated, I should explain the consistency of a horcrux. It’s an object that contains a fragment of a dark wizard’s soul, thus making it easier for him to become immortal. In case you haven’t yet read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Voldemort uses them to help him destroy Harry and his pals.

Another Potter term that’s entered the vernacular is dementor. In J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, dementors guard the Azkaban prison by sucking out the souls of the inhabitants. Dementors feed off human happiness, and thus cause depression and despair to anyone who approaches them. They are prodigious eaters who can consume a person’s soul, leaving their victims in a permanent state of vegetation. One can easily see how the term can be used for some of the manipulative people we encounter every day.

Many of the Potter characters have become shorthand ways to refer to people who possess certain qualities. A Dumbledore represents a sagacious and valiant mentor, a Hermione a bright young woman who tries too hard, a Snape a mean teacher, and a Draco a malevolent bully.

Then there’s the word “Muggle.” In Potter parlance, a Muggle refers to a non-magical person. But, increasingly, the word is gaining distinct meanings among certain groups. Among computer hackers, for instance, the term muggle is sometimes applied to a non-hacker. It’s also used to describe a vexatious person who’s not on the same wavelength as you. On July 17, 2000, News Tribune reported: “Thus fielding a team of muggles in a league of wizards, the Storm opened the season with four losses.”

The Oxford English Dictionary shows three meanings for muggle: a 13th-century Kentish word for “tail of a fish,” a term for marijuana in the early part of the 20th century, and a 17th-century term for “sweetheart.” I suspect Ms. Rowling chose this word to describe non-magic people because it connotes a humdrum existence. A mug is an inelegant word for one’s face, and the OED shows a sense where it refers to “a stupid or incompetent person.” Also, in East Anglia and Shropshire dialect, the word refers to “a damp, dull, gloomy state of the atmosphere.”

But what do I know? I’m no Voldemort, just a Muggle.

Howard Richler’s latest book is Strange Bedfellows: The Private Lives of Words .

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