“Nitwit! Blubber! Oddment! Tweak!” Four Words for “Other”

A friend over at the Barnes and Noble Book Club I’m moderating this month wrote a longish post about the Four Houses, their Four Elements equivalents, and their probable spiritual qualities. I do enjoy thinking about Ravenclaw (Air), Hufflepuff (Earth), Gryffindor (Fire), and Slytherin (Water) along these lines, if I would have never come up with what Oriflamme did. More recently I have been tracking the choleric, phlegmatic, sanguine, and melancholic humors/temperaments in the various characters. Fun stuff.

Most interesting to me is how Ms. Rowling has used these traditionalist conceptions of character and physics to make postmodern points — and has done so from the first book of the series.

I am thinking about Dumbledore’s four word speech to the Four Houses after the sorting in Philosopher’s Stone. He says, “Nitwit! Blubber! Oddment! Tweak!” and sits down. This talk made enough of an impression on Harry (and Ms. Rowling thought it important enough) that he recalls these words during the eulogy at the Headmaster’s funeral in Prince.

The context of his talk is the Sorting of the ickle firsties into their respective houses. However off-the-wall, Albus seems to be making an important point about the divisions that have just been made and the identities these students are about to take on. In short, each of the four words is a “put-down” that one house would use to describe the “other” (anyone not part of their new house).

“Nitwit:” Ravenclaw is the house of witches and wizards of greater intelligence. As a rule, Rowena’s children will think of those not selected for membership in their select group as “nitwits” or dummies.

“Blubber:” Blubber, in contrast, is a word used on playgrounds in the English speaking world for “fat.” It is disparaging because children use it to be unkind to their peers who are heavier than the average kid and probably less athletic. Gryffindor, the jock or frat house, sees the “other” as less physically bold or courageous, for which condition, an eleven year-old would probably find “blubber” a handy signifier.

“Oddment:” This is a word from the world of sewing and fabrics. An oddment, if memory serves, is the remainder from the bolt of cloth, a remainder not large enough to be usable in making anything significant. Slytherins are lovers of “pure-blood” and, in this, “wholeness” or “integrity.” The “other” to a Slytherin is any witch or wizard born with insufficient purity, an insufficiency that makes them an oddment of less, even no value.

“Tweek:” Hufflepuff is the Hogwarts House for magical folk who were not smart, bold, or pure enough for the three Houses described above. From Malfoy’s comments in Madame Malkin’s in *Stone,” they seem to be the dustbin house, where the nobodies wind up. Cedric’s success in *Goblet* also suggests that glory is something of a stranger to Hufflepuff champions.

I have to doubt this is the Hufflepuff self-understanding. They look at the “other” and see “excess” or “imbalance” not “excellence” and “virtue” they lack. Hufflepuff witches and wizards are down-to-earth, humble (humilis), and real people. The “other” needs to be “tweeked” or adjusted to refine their excess and bring it to the mean, which as Aristotle teaches, is where virtue really lies.

The Headmaster doesn’t make a long speech about what a shame it is that they have been divided and will soon see themselves as better than their friends who have had the misfortune to be sorted into the “other” houses. As a good postmodern linguistics professor, he notes that the Sorting Hat is the vehicle of the metanarrative or Grand Myth that is the *real* evil of their world and throws out his comic marker for those capable of hearing what was not very well hidden in his short speech.

As Harry must act as Quintessence to the Four Houses and Four Magical Brethren and was destined to this role as “The Chosen One,” it is no accident that these words stayed with him. Here’s hoping he can make sense of this lesson in his Deathly Hallows efforts to unite the Magical World against Lord Voldemort.

Comments

  1. Wow. I’d never thought that those 4 words could ever be anything but random bits that Professor Dumbledore pulled out of a hat!! This really was the best blog I’ve read! Thanks!

  2. I still think that the four words are randomly chosen. Jo Rowling was making fun of people who announce that they’re just going to say a few words and then make a long, rambling speech by having Dumbledore announce that he was just going to say a few words and then just say a few words. The hungry students, expecting to hear a long, rambling speech, would then be grateful to him for just saying a few words so that they can start eating right away. They would be in no mood to absorb any lesson that those four words were meant to teach them. Attributing any meaning to those particular words is, in my opinion, overanalysing.

  3. That is the default nominalist reading, Timothy. Thank you for sharing what many readers are probably thinking.

    It doesn’t pass the smell test, though, for at least three reasons.

    (1) The four words are Dumbledore’s closing, first remarks in the books. In books in which little is random, especially about the speech of the Headmaster, that they are not meaningful is unlikely. He is a man of secrets and hidden meanings, not to mention profundity. Rowling’s introduction of him as random or arbitrary fights against everything we learn about him from this point forward.

    (2) Dumbledore later expresses to Professor Snape his sentiment that “we sort too soon,” exactly the interpretation above of his cryptic remarks as implicit criticism of the sorting.

    (3) Harry repeats the remarks at DDore’s funeral as important tokens of his mentor. It might be suggested this a function of her circular writing and the end necessarily recalling the beginning except, again, would Rowling make the DDore brackets random remarks or words that point to his inclusive and loving understanding of people outside categories?

    If this strikes you as ‘over analysis,’ so be it! Your take impresses me as a refusal to see what is there. DDore certainly means his words to seem arbitrary and random, hence comic, but, as with all things Albine, there is more to his jests than a grin and giggle moment.

  4. I had read the series a few times and finally reread PS. Looking at the words made me think and I took it as a possible synonyms and so I googled to see if anyone else took it this way.

    Nitwit= Gryffindor-They act bravely before they think. Therefore they could be called nitwits.
    Blubber=Slythering-Strive to achieve MORE success. When one is successful they could live lavishly.
    Oddment=Ravenclaw-Very intelligent. Intelligence is normally logical and in a world of magic would be odd.
    Tweak=Hufflepuff-Hardest working but least competitive, when they work to improve themselves they change just a little.

    Snape, Luna, Hermione and Diggory are exceptions to these rules somewhat. This could be one reason why they are some of the best of their houses.

    But this is all in my head so it means nothing.

  5. Richard MacWizard says:

    I have to disagree with the premise of this article: I really think that the significance of these words is that they are insignifanct (meaningless). Words carry a lot of weight in the Potterverse, whether they’re bullying and hurtful (“Freak!”), an incantation (“Avada Kedavra!”), and then we come to this eccentric 4-word phrase. Consider that we see Dumbledore’s proclivity toward joking a number of times in the series (“Would you like a sherbert lemon?” … “Socks”). In this case, Dumbledore declares he will say “a few words” and does just that. It reminded me of a Peeves scene with Filch: “Shan’t say nuffin’ if you don’t say please” “Please” “Nothing!” I think the humour is in the literalness that plays out in the scene. If there truly is a deeper meaning, it’s certainly never explained further in-universe or even referenced again, but Dumbledore’s unsettling eccentricity is (“He is a bit mad, isn’t he?”).

  6. Thank you for the thoughtful response.

    I disagree with your argument that the four words are arbitrary, however, for points in the post, namely, that these are Dumbledore’s first and last words in the Saga suggests they are not whimsy or arbitrary, that Dumbledore is much better known as a man whose depths are not appreciated or comprehensible than he is as an eccentric or nutter, and Rowling’s care as a writer testify that these words are meaning-full rather than meaning-as-you-like or meaning-less-if-not-empty.

    Thanks again, though, for sharing your thoughts.

  7. I absolutely totally agree with what JohnABaptist wrote on September 30, 2007 at 6:08 pm.
    It makes perfect sense. It’s very Dumbledorish to speak to the whole school, not to each House, and to care especially about the newbies.

  8. Reagan Slade says:

    Hi. So I stumbled upon this while writing a fanfic (I know, but it’s fun) in which I was trying to stay true to Dumbledore as both a genius and an eccentric man. I love the idea that the words hold meaning. While I do believe Dumbledore IS making fun of people who say more than a few words, I also think he is showing the students, both new and old, that words don’t need to be wasted, over thought, or in an overabundance to get one’s meaning across. AND Dumbledore manages to do this in a way that give laughter to some scared first year, all while summing up that all of the houses are more than their faults.
    Also, while I get the enjoyment one gets in seeing the words as random and meaningless, I also find it sad that you can’t see past your own bubble of experience to try and see things from the mind of a brilliant man who can make the words seem both meaningless for those who just want to laugh, and those who need that hidden meaning.
    But, that’s just me.
    Also, because I am shameless, check out my fanfic called, “A Sirius Twist” on archive of our own .com
    I look forward to feed back both on the fic, and this post!

  9. Gilbert Yang says:

    I was thinking along the same lines too, but more that Dumbledore was criticizing the faults of each house, not in this context. Very interesting thought and good job putting it into words.

  10. AarronWith2R's says:

    I think this has total validity. I would wager money that DDore was not merely saying nonsense, that is not his character.

    Also, within just a page or two of the above the quote in question he says, ““Ahem — just a few more words now that we are all fed and watered. I have a few start-of-term notices to give you…” Then he proceeds to say a bunch of stuff. So the argument that he was making fun of people for saying “just a few words” seems invalid given the context.

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