Harry Potter

"Potter Cognoscenti All Know a Muggle When they see One"

by Matthew Rose & Emily Nelson ("Wall Street Journal," October 18, 2000)

Coinages in the Kids' Books are Code, in Fan's Hands, to Realm's of Daily Life

Whenever anyone at Microsoft Corp.'s education division shoots down one of Marcia Kuszmaul's ideas, she retorts: "Don't be a muggle."
In J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series of novels, muggle is the often-pejorative term for a person who isn't a wizard. "We use it at business-planning meetings," says Ms. Kuszmaul, who manages the group at the software giant's Edmond, Wash., headquarters. "We all ike to see ourselves as one of the wizards."
The children's books ab out an unassuming orphan who turns out to be a wizard are wildly popular among people of all ages. Now, Potterisms are moving into the everyday language of work, politics and romance, where they are offering the series' millions of fans a new insiders shorthand for all manner of good and evil. Newsday called sprinter Michael Johnson a "muggle" for flaming out of the Olympic 200-meter trials. A columnist for the Chicago Daily Herald said an NBC Olympics commentator was the "dementor of sports commentators," likening him to prison guards in the books who suck the joy out of people.
In Conneticut, there's one executive at Hartford Insurance Co. "who can make your life miserable," says Lisa Lesperance, who works there. One recent afternoon, he was spotted wandering the corridors with a group of acolytes. A colleague e-mailed Ms. Lesperance as the executive passed: "Here comes Draco Malfoy and his friends," naming one of Harry's archenemies, a snobbish rich kid with loyalties to renegade wizards. "We all started giggling," says the 42-year-old Ms. Lesperance, who won't disclose her Draco's real name. Some of Ms. Lesperance's co-workers call her Hermione, after Harry's know-it-all friend, because she is the only female in their crowd. Ms. Lesperance tells co-workers to send her "owls" not e-mails, referring to the way mail is delivered in the wizarding world. She calls the office ATM "Gringotts," after the wizard bank.
Amy Lyn Gerbrandt, a 29-year-old graduate student in comparative literature at the University of California at Davis, was recently at a conference in Helsinki, where a professor was explaining that scholars should avoid letting modern ideas of right and wrong cloud their judgement of historical events. A friend leaned over during the lecture and wrote "pensieve" in Ms. Gerbrandt's notebook.
A "pensieve," a device in book four, "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," let's a person put his thoughts in a bowl to view them seperately from everyday concerns. "In a pensieve, you can drain things out and clarify, and get a better sense of the now and the then," explains Ms. Gerbrandt. "All these important scholars, and Harry Potter beat them to it."
Some adults have found that they had better use Potterisms with caution. After lunch at Denver's Hops Brewery one Sunday, Mary Susan Powers stood to lift her one-year-old daughter out of her highchair, and nearly knocked over a glass of iced tea. Her husband, Steve Burton, called her "so much a Neville Longbottom," after Harry Potter's klutzy friend. "She snapped back, "When you know Neville's story, you'll feel sorry. So back off."
The next day, Mr. Burton finished book four on his lunch break at the janitorial company he owns. He read that Neville's awkwardness stems from the tragic fate his parents met in their heroic efforts against the Dark Arts. He felt guilty and apologized to his wife. Potterisms also can backfire if delivered to the wrong crowd. Wendy Frank, who works for a New York construction company, was late for a meeting in mid-town Manhattan because she couldn't find one dead-end street. "it's just like platform 9 &Mac178;," she explained to blank looks from the executives she was visiting. Ms. Frank was talking about the King's Cross railway platform in the books that can be accessed only by wizards who walk through a solid barrier. The executives in the room didn't know what she was talking about. LeGrand S. Redfield Jr. would say they were muggles. The president of Asset Management Group Inc., in Greenwich Conn., uses the expression to describe people who annoy him. Building contractors are muggles "when you can't find one who will do what they said they will do when they said they will do it for the price they said," explains the 45-year-old. But there's no need to limit to contractors, he adds. "'Muggles' can be adapted for anything that is pejorative."
The Potter books have given parents new tools for scolding their kids. "What do you think this is, a Quidditch match?" yelled New Yorker David Rosenthal at his seven-year-old son, who was tearing around the family's Brooklyn brownstone. Mr. Rosenthal, a vice president at Simon and Schuster, was referring to the fast-paced and sometimes dangerous sport played by wizards on broomsticks. Even author Ms. Rowling, who says she is "bowled over" to hear people using Potterspeak, can't resist. When her seven-year-old daughter throws a temper tantrum, Ms. Rowling calls her "Dudley," after Harry's rude, fat cousin.
For some of the people at Scholastic Corp. who have bought Harry Potter to the U.S., it's hard ot leave the books at work.
Barbara Marcus, a senior executive at the publishing house, wasn't having any luck getting her six-year-old daughter to return a pen that wasn't hers. "Expelliarmus," came a cry behind the bedroom door as Ms. Marcus' husband, Michael Pollack, entered the fray. By invoking the Potter spell that makes people drop what they're holding, Mr. Pollack persuaded their daughter to give up the pen.
Another Potter spell helps Kris Chadderton, a 21-year-old music major at Swarthmore College, "any time I'm under pressure," she says. Before her piano recitals, she paces the halls and mutters a special spell that wards off dementors: "Expecto patronum, expecto patronum."
Harry Potter works like a charm for Amy Cohen, helping the 42-year-old New Yorker find dates. In July, she posted a personal ad on several web sites and at a Manhattan coffee shop. She described herself-then added-"I idolize Harry Potter."
Replies flooded in and she is now exchanging e-mail with five men who litter their messages with Potterisms. One suggested a Quidditch match for their first date. "It's funny what it's doing for my social life," Ms. Cohen says. "They're good people, Harry Potter people."