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

by John on March 21, 2007

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.

{ 38 comments… read them below or add one }

jensenly March 22, 2007 at 10:11 am

Excellent! I was just re-reading PS and this caught my eye. Couldn’t for the life of me figure out what DD was talking about!

Very clever of you.

dewyn March 23, 2007 at 12:05 pm

Another cultural data point for your four elements/quintessence observation: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Leonardo=Fire/Courage
Donatello=Air/Intellect
Michaelangelo=Earth/Appetite
Raphael=Water/Fluidity

Indeed, it seems the plot is that the turtles have separated and must rejoin to win the day. In fact, a couple of the clips are explicit about “fighting as one” and that the team without Raphael is incomplete. Thought you’d appreciate another point of confirmation.

mary March 26, 2007 at 6:02 pm

John, what a neat idea, and I hadn’t thought of it that way at all! I believe you are right – Dumbledore is urging unity and understanding with this odd speech. But I would interpret the individual words a bit differently. I think he is mentioning the ways each House is seen negatively by *all* of the others. Thus:

1. Nitwit = Ravenclaw. The Ravenclaws may be extremely intelligent, but they are also impractical, idealistic and (sometimes) eccentric. Wouldn’t you say most of the other kids see Luna as a nitwit?

2. Blubber = Slytherin. I don’t think this word means overweight; it means bursting into tears. The Slytherins, based on Snape’s nickname and Draco’s flood of tears in the bathroom, are the weepy house, and the other houses scorn them for their open emotionality – especially those stiff-lipped, warrior Gryffindors.

3. Oddment= Hufflepuff. What other house could be scorned as the ‘leftovers;’ the bits and pieces no one else could think to use?

4. Tweak = Gryffindor. At first, it’s hard to see why, but the only casual cheaters we’ve seen have been in Gryffindor. (Bagman, who was almost certainly a Gryffindor; Peter Pettigrew; and, alas, Ron and Harry.) Gryffindors are also, more often than not, the sort of bullies who ‘tweak’ other kids.

So I think Dumbledore deliberately chose words that reflected the *negative* stereotype of each house. In this speech, he was urging the students to look beyond those stereotypes; he was also pointing out that every House had negative aspects, but every House was far more than the worst impression it might make.

Just my two cents!

oriflamme March 26, 2007 at 11:16 pm

I didn’t understand the hidden meaning of these four words till your explanation. I suspected a link with the four houses but didn’t figure it out. One more time, I must say « bravo! »
However, the DD’s short speech began with a warmly « welcome » and ended with « Thank you ». It sounds to me like: « Welcome Nitwit, Blubber, Oddment, Tweak! And thank you! ». What is the meaning of this joke: an apology (DD let them be divided) or a warning? Apology seems to be the Christian answer and the warning the postmodern one. My opinion is that humor is the JKR’s way to bind both.

JohnABaptist September 30, 2007 at 6:08 pm

Coming quite late to the discussion, but I have quite a different interpretation of Professor Dumbledore’s fascinatingly brief speech–Boggart slaying!

Through out the entire series, one of the major recurring themes is that of the need to name and face our fears. One way this theme is personified is in the boggart which can only be slain by facing it directly, accepting it for what it is, and then using laughter to rob it of its controlling powers.

In the days and moments leading up to the Sorting Hat ceremony, the young students have all verbally or mentally expressed the common fears of school children anywhere heading into the unknown terrors of a new school, to wit:

Nitwit: I will not be quick enough to grasp the work. I don’t have enough preparation. I will be publicly humiliated as a fool.

Blubber: I will not have the courage to carry on. I will break down in tears in front of everyone. I will be publicly revealed as a coward.

Oddment: I do not belong here. I will never fit in. I will never be chosen for anything. I will be publicly exposed as unworthy of being here.

Tweak: I will hate it here! I will never be happy here. I will always be scared. I may never be seriously harmed, but I will be publicly tweaked in some way every day.

And then the imposing figure at the head table shouted the children’s deepest fears right into their anxious little faces…NITWIT! BLUBBER! ODDMENT! TWEAK!

For one frozen second all the children must have thought “He knows! The charade is over! I’ve been exposed!” Four great boggarts hovered in the air ready to strike!

Then the great imposing figure said “Thank you.” and sat down.

The room erupted in laughter and the boggart’s went up in smoke. A few hundred hungry children relaxed and began to enjoy themselves, and a wise old professor smiled into his freshly filled plate because he had just demonstrated one of most important principles they would ever learn at Hogwart’s. And the children didn’t even realize that the term had started.

Corry December 12, 2007 at 7:33 pm

… and I just thought Rowling must have been a fan of Spike Milligan!

Newyork204 December 2, 2008 at 12:25 am

I have to say that I loved this blog. I have not seen anyone really describe the Hufflepuff like it should be and you finally did. I tried to do this in my blog but you did in one paragraph what I couldn’t.

I am not a big fan of the Slytherin part. That needs work. I do not subscribe to the Slytherin house being tagged as the “Hitlers’ of the wizarding world as people try to depict them. But, because of the founder, certain prominant house memeber, and the overall Slytherin traits, that is where a unproportionant number of evil witches and wizards come out from.

Again, great job on the Hufflepuff description. I really do not believe that they are in fact the “dumb” house and that there was always something more J.R. Rowling was trying to get out of it. What makes me upset is that she never fully developed the Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff house as I would have liked. I actually think she did a woefull job in that department. While there were not main characters, besides Cedrick and it lasted for one book and at limited times, from those two other houses she could have found some way to develop them better and let us see more into their personalities. Quite frankly, I know tons of Gryfinddors and tons on Slytherins (my house I might add) but when it comes with Hufflepuffs and Ravenclaw I really have to use my immagination.

ChildofImmanuel January 22, 2009 at 10:33 am

mary said, “The Slytherins, based on Snape’s nickname and Draco’s flood of tears in the bathroom, are the weepy house, and the other houses scorn them for their open emotionality – especially those stiff-lipped, warrior Gryffindors.”

Are there any instances in the story where Slytherins show open emotionality? They seem to spend most of their time mocking and laughing, not crying.

Snape’s nickname would not have been known to the students, and Draco’s crying took place in private. I don’t see how Slytherins would have been seen as “weepy.”

Just my two cents.

lisa December 2, 2009 at 8:43 pm

You made a mistake in the tweak part
you said madam borkins, but its madam malkins… robes for all occasions.
you mixed it up with borgin and burkes..

Easel January 5, 2010 at 8:58 am

thanks.

Desdemona January 10, 2010 at 1:59 pm

I disagree with the opinion that Hufflepuff is for leftovers (in some instances). That doesn’t explain why Tonks got into Hufflepuff. She’s not particularly hufflepuff-y to me…

Anthony Stuart April 27, 2010 at 7:37 am

Don’t forget, in the sorting hat’s songs, it often described hufflepuffs as the hard-workers of hogwarts, and as those that valued tolerance very strongly. in Mary’s view of things, that fits oddment quite well with hufflepuffs being more accepting of oddments, which can give them the appearance of being oddments themselves

Fox August 9, 2010 at 6:54 am

I have never actually thought really hard about those four words before: I always thought it was Dumbledore being eccentric. This is really great. Probably, JKR wouldn’t put anything in her books that doesn’t have a hidden meaning. Really keeps you hanging, doesn’t it?

Jimmy August 12, 2010 at 11:40 am

I always thought those were just random words, and Dumbledore thought it would be prudent time for them. I like that there’s an actual meaning for them, but I think I’d rather them just be, well, random…I like Dumbledore that way.

To the person who commented something about Ninja Turtles, you are freaking awesome! :)

Bmac April 8, 2011 at 12:31 am

Hufflepuff to me seems to be more of a hard working house. They all seemed to have a greater fairness as well, and seemed to see beyond themselves more often.

JanetLovegood May 29, 2011 at 10:40 pm

This is very well thought out! I love how Rowling puts random little things like this in all of the books!

Gerardo July 11, 2011 at 6:59 am

I would relate Slytherin with earth and ravenclaw with water. Gryffindor, fire, of course, and Hufflepuff air.

Tyler August 9, 2011 at 12:00 pm

I just read this chapter in the Spanish translation, and I discovered some important new details. The Spanish renders “blubber” not as the type of fat, but the type of sobbing, like a blubbering crybaby. “Oddment” is rendered as a trinket or trifle, a cheap toy. And finally, “tweak” is rendered as the noun “pinch”, as in either a pinch of salt or a pinch on the nose.
If these meanings are what Rowling originally meant by “nitwit, blubber, oddment, tweak”, then it would throw a wrench (or perhaps a spanner?) in the works of everyone’s interpretations thus far. When I read it, I had to come see if anyone had found it, and share it. If you like it, pass it on!

Bleki August 9, 2011 at 11:28 pm

DD never say something that have no meaning later. So, i disagree with some of you who said he talking random words which have no meaning.

Victor August 10, 2011 at 5:35 pm

Desdemona January 10, 2010 at 1:59 pm:

I disagree with the opinion that Hufflepuff is for leftovers (in some instances).
=====================================================
“For instance, Slytherin
Took only pure-blood wizards
Of great cunning, just like him,
And only those of sharpest mind
Were taught by Ravenclaw
While the bravest and the boldest
Went to daring Gryffindor,
Good Hufflepuff, she took the /rest/ ;)

Mary Ellen August 11, 2011 at 1:10 pm

What a fun post and discussion — and still going strong four years on! On the elements for each house:

Clearly Ravenclaw’s element is air since the symbol of the house is an eagle. No surprise, the Ravenclaw common room has huge windows and must filled with light during the day. Ravenclaw’s colors are blue and bronze (blue for the sky, of course, through which eagles love to soar). Naturally, the first spell Ravenclaw head of house Flitwick teaches his charms class is wingardium leviosa using a feather as the charmed object. At the Battle of Hogwarts Flitwick stands at a smashed window murmuring “incantations of great complexity. Harry heard a weird rushing noise, as though Flitwick had unleashed the power of the wind onto the grounds.”

Just as clearly, Hufflepuff must be earth since badgers are extremely strong and can generally outmatch their few predators by digging fast and taking refuge deep underground. Hufflepuff’s colors are black and yellow (in addition to their black and white head stripes, many badgers have yellow-gold chest fur). It’s not surprising that Pomona Sprout, earthy, wise in the ways of plants and herb-lore, heads Hufflepuff house. Badgers are associated as totems with healing and the knowledge of herb, roots, minerals and deeply buried secret knowledge.

Gryffindore’s symbol is the lion and the house colors are red an gold. The astrological sign of Leo (the lion) is a fire sign. Further, Chimeras, which have a lion’s head and body, breathe fire, while Gryfons in ancient mythology, were thought to be guardians of gold. Dumbledore, whose familiar is a phoenix (forever reborn of fire and ash), is the quintessential Grffindore. Fire is the agent of change, so it’s no surprise that both Dumbledore and McGonagall are experts at Transfiguration and that McGonagall is an animagus. No question, Gryffindore is fire.

By process of elimination that leaves water to Slytherin. Not so surprising when you think about it. Many snakes are excellent swimmers and either live in water most of the time or take refuge there when danger threatens. Sytherin and Gryffindore are natural antagonists, like water and fire. The Slytherin colors of green and silver suggest water’s natural colors. Slytherin’s common room is down in the damp dungeons under the lake where the light is all greenish. The basilisk unleashed by Slytherin’s heir traveled by water pipes.

Snape, the double agent, understands that like water, “The Dark Arts…are many, varied, ever-changing, and eternal.” The only way to trap or hold water is to lock in in impenetrable containers (a good description of occlumency). Perhaps it was because Lily’ eyes were green that she was able to touch something in the deepest depths of Snape’s soul that he normally kept locked away.

Victor August 11, 2011 at 3:33 pm

As for “nitwit, blubber, oddment, tweak” … I don’t think it has any deep meaning, really…it’s nonsense, plain and simple perhaps?

“A little nonsense now and then
Is relished by the wisest men.” ~ Willy Wonka ;)

I think this may also be JKR’s way of having a little dig at people who make formal, long-winded speeches full of esoteric vocabulary and allusions…that ultimately mean very little.

Kristen August 31, 2011 at 2:58 pm

Blubber could also mean to cry loudly. Gryffindors could use it to put down those who are not as brave as they are.

Dhruba88 October 12, 2011 at 10:34 am

it is obvious that “Nitwit! Blubber! Oddment! Tweak!” have meanings of there own… APWBD does not waste words. I was somewhat looking forward to an explanation tucked in safely in some nook or corner of the series, but could not. And it has been 4 years since the series ended. But i think John Grangers’ ideas are acceptable, may be it is not totally correct, but this is what I would expect from APWBD…
Anyways can we not ask JKR herself , somehow , somebody, plz
ইয়ে বলছিলুম কি কোনোভাবে রাউলিং দিদি কে জিজ্ঞেস করা যায়না??!প্লীজ

or would she answer this in the HP Encyclopedia or that PotterMore…fingers crossed

Virajas May 23, 2012 at 7:14 am

Jimmy, you stole the words out of my mouth… I love the random things that Dumbledore does… Be it saying ‘nitwit blubber oddment tweak’ as his concept of a few words, or his treatment of the Dursleys in HBP, or his liking of knitting patterns… BUt if J.K really did think over what they meant, kodos to her! Respect!

Timothy Walsh May 23, 2012 at 1:55 pm

I think that Dumbledore was just making fun of people who claim that they’re going to say a few words and then make a long-winded speech. Instead, he truthfully announced that he was going to say a few words and then simply said a few words, which he made up at random. Given that everyone was hungry, they would certainly appreciate the brevity of his speech.

John May 23, 2012 at 2:22 pm

And Harry recalls these words at DDore’s funeral why?

Really, this is the surface humor of the Headmaster’s remarks in Harry’s first year, we all get that, but suggesting that Albus ever spoke at just one level is to miss the depth and richness and true humor of the character.

Timothy Walsh May 24, 2012 at 1:05 pm

This comment isn’t about the four words – I’ve already made a comment about them – but this is the only place that I could find in which I could leave a comment. The only part of Pottermore that is inaccessible to the users is the welcoming message from the houses into which we were not sorted. Could you post the welcoming messages from all four houses somewhere in Alohomora?

Carrie-Ann Biondi May 24, 2012 at 2:44 pm

I don’t know which house you’re in, Timothy, but this is the welcome message for Gryffindor:

“Congratulations! I’m Prefect Percy Weasley, and I’m delighted to welcome you to GRYFFINDOR HOUSE. Our emblem is the lion, the bravest of all creatures; our house colours are scarlet and gold, and our common room lies up in Gryffindor Tower.

This is, quite simply, the best house at Hogwarts. It’s where the bravest and boldest end up – for instance: Albus Dumbledore! Yes, Dumbledore himself, the greatest wizard of our time, was a Gryffindor! If that’s not enough for you, I don’t know what is.

I won’t keep you long, as all you need to do to find out more about your house is to follow Harry Potter and his friends as I lead them up to their dormitories. Enjoy your time at Hogwarts – but how could you fail to? You’ve become part of the best house in the school.”

Tania July 6, 2012 at 1:41 am

Being a somewhat maniacal HP fan, I find all this very interesting!
My not-so-few words is that HP is multi-layered all over the place, so, like Dumbledore said, “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should this mean that it is not real?”
Of course Dumbledore did it for the fun of it and all that, but that hardly means he picked the words at random, or that even his random picked-words didn’t express something deeper that was on his mind at that moment. So, what’s to lose by getting crazy with the implications?
All in all, I loved all the interpretations here, thanks for the great ideas everyone!

Em July 6, 2012 at 4:00 pm

I love how long this discussion has been going! :)

It’s an interesting point you make, but it seems to me like JohnABaptist’s idea seemed more likely to me, and it fit in more closely with my idea of Dumbledore’s eccentric character, as well as his easy way of identifying with youth.

Also, this description of Hufflepuff – as them being the ones who “were not smart, bold, or pure enough” to go into the other Houses – seems inaccurate to me, though it’s kinda unclear whether you agree with it or not. Hufflepuff is the House that values integrity and hard work, just as Slytherin values cleverness and ambition, Gryffindor bravery and chivalry, and Ravenclaw intelligence and a thirst for knowledge; their values are simply more subtle and harder for eleven-year-old kids to grasp, though no less valuable.

Actually, I think the argument could be made that the Hufflepuff House is the best of the four. Bravery can lead to idiocy, intelligence to arrogance, and ambition to being … um, Lord-Voldemort-ish. Hufflepuffs, on the other hand, seem like the closest to incorruptible of the lot.

em:)

Petals August 24, 2012 at 6:55 am

You know, with all these follow-ups, I get irritatingly confused. While all of you has an opinion (as I am sharing one right now), I only appreciate the joy and humor he puts in all of his words, as while we all don’t consciously confirm it, we know that somewhere underneath all those math equations and other conscious thoughts, that Professor Dumbledore have a meaning for every word he speaks that most feel is spontaneous and tacky.

Zoe December 25, 2012 at 10:22 am

Tweak also means ‘to mock.’

Nana December 31, 2012 at 3:03 pm

I agree with John. When DD speaks, there is always more. One of my favorite examples of this is from PS after he catches Harry again at the Mirror of Erised. When Harry asks what he sees in the Mirror, DD replies with characteristic humor that he sees himself with warm, wooly socks. Harry was uncertain that he’d been honest, but I thought it was completely revealing. DD goes on to say that he is always given books, lamenting privately that he is only perceived as a bookish intellectual and never the flesh and blood man who also craves the warmth and comfort of a happy family. After all, wooly, hand-knitted socks are a familial gift made and given with love. Mrs. Weasley knits for those she loves. The word close-knit refers to family and we know DD loves knitting patterns. But for him to “see” himself with warm wooly socks is to say his heart’s desire was to be surrounded by his family, one of whom cared enough for his comfort to knit him a pair of socks for Christmas. In the mirror that is the final book, we learn that this is exactly the case.

442Paula April 3, 2013 at 9:31 pm

I think it’s an anagram, or a set of anagrams.

Kamie August 14, 2013 at 12:36 am

Nana, I love your idea about the socks! Especially how it aligns with what we find out at the end of the books about DD’s family. I always felt sad for DD that he didn’t like getting books as gifts, and didn’t really understand it, as books are always my favorite things to receive as gifts, but now I think I understand his reasoning better!

Louise M. Freeman August 14, 2013 at 1:18 pm

I always loved the fact that, the night Harry spied the Silver Doe, it was cold enough that he had put on “every sweater he owned.” Assuming he hadn’t bothered to pack any of Dudley’s horrible handmedowns, they were all Mrs. Weasley’s creations. Harry strips them off to enter the icy water , only to be pulled out by Ron, the very one who never appreciated his mother’s knitting and had even expressed jealousy that Molly put more effort into Harry’s than into his. Then, they go onto destroy the horcrux and, at the same time, permanently set aside their conflict and envy.

Udita April 3, 2014 at 1:06 pm

It’s Madam Malkin, not Borkin.
Nice analysis. I never thought about those meaningless (or so I thought) but significant words until I read this article.

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