I admit it unabashedly: I am a massive Harry Potter fan. I was skeptical at first (the story of a boy wizard who saves the world seemed trite and overdone), but I was soon won over! I fell in love with the movies first, then devoured the novels. J.K. Rowling definitely ranks as one of my all-time-favorite authors: #1 because of her fantastic writing style, #2 because of her books…well…British-ness (I don’t get the chance to read about “dustbins” and “puddings” very often!). 

Potter II by Lucia..
Potter II, a photo by Lucia.. on Flickr.

One of the most British things about the Harry Potter books is the fascinating names you’ll find on every page: Diggory, Boggart, Bellatrix, Aberforth, Smeltings, Squib…they sound exactly like the weird, wild, and sweet British place names I’m so in love with. If you’re a fan of the Harry Potter series (or just like quirky names in general), you’ll want to check out this list of names from the books and their intriguing origins in our world of “muggle” Britain:
  • Bathilda Bagshot– Saint Bathild of Ascania was a young Anglo-Saxon girl who lived in the 7th century, became queen of the Franks, and was canonized for opposing the slave trade and founding a convent. Don’t ask me how this relates to the old magical historian…but it’s an interesting tidbit.
  • Boggart: A boggart is a sort of mischievous household fairy that likes wreaking havoc in the North of England (souring milk, crippling dogs, and clinging to its hapless victims with a vengeance). As Jo Rowling is wont to do, she has “taken horrible liberties” with Britain’s “totally bastard mythology” and created her own mythical creature that takes on the shape of its observer’s worst fear. 
  • Cedric: The name of Hogwart’s champion comes from the Old English word for “chief” or “war leader.”
  • Cuthbert Binns: If you’re not British, you might miss this not-so-subtle reference to what the students at Hogwarts really think about their history professor. “Bin” is the British word for trashcan, so basically Professor Binns is a load of rubbish!
  • Dumbledore: Would you believe that the headmaster’s surname is Old English for “bumblebee”? Rowling says she chose this name, “Because Albus Dumbledore is very fond of music, I always imagined him as sort of humming to himself a lot.”
  • Errol: The Weasley family’s poor, pathetic owl Errol’s name means “wanderer” in Old English, which is quite appropriate for this easily confused little messenger.
  • Fawkes: I don’t know how I never made this connection: Dumbledore’s pet phoenix that periodically bursts into flame shares his name with the most infamous traitor in English history: Guy Fawkes. Guy Fawkes Day or Bonfire Night is a huge celebration held on November 5 that celebrates this fiend’s thwarted attempt to blow up Parliament. Gunpowder, treason and plot. / I see no reason why Gunpowder treason / Should ever be forgot. 
  • Fiendfyre: A classy, Old English way of saying “enemy’s fire.”
  • Godric: This name is a combination of ancient English words for “god” and “power.” Quite fitting for one of Hogwart’s four legendary founders.
Daniel Ogren [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
  • Hagrid: While this name might have a connection with the word “haggard” (the lovable fellow is quite disheveled) or an old term for indigestion, Rowling identified it as a dialect word from Old English “meaning you’d had a bad night. Hagrid’s a big drinker. He has a lot of bad nights.
  • Hogwarts: The name of this magnificent wizarding school may have come from a plant that Rowling saw on a trip to Kew Gardens.
  • Little Whinging: The mediocre muggle suburb where Harry spent his childhood derives its name from the British word for “complaining.” It’s rather apt for the Dursleys who enjoy whining, gossiping about their neighbors, and generally being wet blankets. Their home’s address, Privet Drive, comes from privet bushes—the blandest bit of landscaping you could ask for.
  • Minerva McGonagall: While her first name is a reference to the Roman goddess of wisdom and magic, her last name is thoroughly Scottish and is derived from the Celtic name meaning “the bravest.” You rock, professor.
  • Muggle: In English slang a “mug” is someone who is easily fooled. Silly muggles….
  • Rowena: This very awesome name has several British connections. It is Old English for “red hair,” means “rugged” in Gaelic, and Rhonwen is “the Mother of the English Nation” in Welsh poetry.  
  • Sir Cadogan: This name is of Welsh origin and means “terrible and fierce in battle.” Absolutely ironic for an inept little knight who lives in portraits. Sir Cadogan: “Farewell, comrades. If ever you have the need of a noble heart and steely sinew call upon Sir Cadogan.” Ronald Weasley: “Yeah, we’ll call you…if we ever need anyone mental.”
  • St. Mungo’s Hospital for Magical Maladies and Injuries: The famous wizard hospital that has treated patients who suffer from puking pastilles, spell damage from prophesy spheres, werewolf bites, and satsumas shoved in nostrils, shares its name with the patron saint of Glasgow.
By Jakovche (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
  • The Hog’s Head Pub: In olden times a “hogshead” was a fifty-four gallon cask (about  250 L) used to hold ale. Just about the right size for Hagrid’s drinking mug….
  • Weasley: In Britain and Ireland, weasels are considered unfortunate, even malevolent creatures, but J.K. Rowling seems to have had a soft spot for  them. The beloved Weasley family shares this creature’s red hair, bad luck, and poor reputation, as well as a connection with such places as Ottery St. Catchpole and Stoatshead Hill, names reminiscent of other members of the weasel family.
  • Wizengamot: The name for wizarding Britain’s high court of law and parliament probably comes from a council of elders from Anglo-Saxon times called the  “Witenagemot.”

I hope that you enjoyed my little fictional dictionary! Are you a Harry Potter fan? Why or why not?
Bonus Brit-Bit: J.K. Rowling is a devoted Jane Austen admirer. She must have read Emma20 times, and she says “I have never set up a surprise ending in a Harry Potter book without knowing I can never, and will never, do it anywhere near as well as Austen did in Emma.”

“Like” Picture Britain on Facebook for exclusive links, photos, and information! http://www.facebook.com/PictureBritain

Written by Abigail Young

I've had a passion for everything British my entire life, despite being raised as a small-town girl in the American Midwest, After years of dreaming, I got the chance to live and work in England for an entire year. Now I write about my favorite country, and hopefully inspire my fellow Britophiles to get over there and experience it for themselves.

This article has 2 comments

  1. Martin Reply

    Another point to note – the heros have names derived from either celtic or Anglo saxon names, however the villains (Voldemort, Bellatrix, Malfoy, etc.) have French derived names!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *