"Merlin's pants!" and other expletives and put-downs from Harry Potter
Two major sociolinguistic features of any culture are the ways in which people put down one another and the ways in which they express disdain (or, in other words, swear). The magical community in J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series is no different. Rowling manages to create a system that effectively expresses swearing and put-downs in a manner that is not only appropriate for the ears of young Muggle children, but is also apt for the magical community.
As avid Harry Potter fans know, the most degrading insult seen in the series is the term “mudblood,” used to debase a witch or wizard of Muggle parentage. However, this word is not the only way in which characters can hurt each other's feelings. Upon reading through the series, one might notice that the students do not use put-downs that one would normally hear from the average middle school-aged child. Instead, Rowling uses creative put-down constructions, all of which generally relate to creatures and features of the magical world. For example, on occasion, students are heard to relate being “stupid” to being “troll-like” (think of the O.W.L. examinations, where a failing grade is described as “Troll”). Like every other detail of the magical world, Rowling does not miss a single aspect of magical put-down constructions. In terms of swearing, the characters use the same creative method to express disdain. After all, who could forget Hermione's outburst of “Merlin's pants!” in a moment of stress during Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows?
Also, just as the readers see growth in the characters throughout the series, they also see some sense of maturation in the usage of put-downs and swearing over time. The more the students learn about the magical world, the more abundant their store of magical put-downs and exclamations becomes. It is difficult to forget the first time the students hear “mudblood” in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets: to Harry and Hermione it has little meaning, but as they grow and adjust to the magical world it becomes just as ghastly as it was to Ron from the start.
This presentation will be in lecture format, and, with the help of visual aids, will take the listeners on an adventure through the Harry Potter series, focusing on the evolution of the put-downs and expletive expressions the students use. Most importantly, the plethora of material the students have to work with and how they use it will be explored and evaluated, all in a timeline-based order. Additionally, the word “mudblood” will be evaluated in a sociopolitical context and compared to the socially equivalent features of the Muggle world, for it is certainly the most damaging word that readers see throughout the series. Despite the seriousness of a slur such as “mudblood,” the audience is bound to be entertained by the score of expressions found throughout the Harry Potter series.
Kathleen Langr is a student of English Linguistics and French, holding her Bachelor of the Arts from Arizona State University as of May 2010. Much of her undergraduate career was spent studying different branches of theoretical linguistics, however her experiences in sociolinguistics led her to study swearing and insult in modern American English. Her former research projects include a paper featuring the use of insult in comedy and a paper on the etymology of some of English's most stigmatized words. For her Honors Thesis, Kathleen researched and created a manual of insult for non-native English speakers; the manual outlined different situations, defenses, and topics of insult in American society, all in order to assist English Language Learners. Kathleen has been absorbed in the Harry Potter series since she was 11 years old, and plans to continue studying the linguistic aspects of the series.