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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Catalan: muggle (originally *balba? *mollo?)
Occitan: *balban? *molon? (or *moldu?)
French (Norman): *muguel?
French (Standard): moldu
Asturian: *muggle? (originally *balbanu? *mollón?)
Galician: *muggle? (originally *balbano? *molón?)
Portuguese (Brazil): trouxa (originally *balbão? *molão?)
Portuguese (Portugal): muggle (originally *balbão? *molão?)
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.
So, I took the American translation presented in the movie (“no-mag”) as the translation of “muggle” from British English into America English. It seemed merely descriptive, not pejorative. Whereas, I had interpreted “muggle” as a pejorative previously.
America and the UK are definitely two countries separated by a common language! I guess you’d have to go to the source (JKR) for what subtle shades of meaning may or may not be present between no-maj and muggle. (But I still don’t like no-maj!)