Beatrice Groves: Unlocking Clues to The Christmas Pig

Beatrice Groves, Research Lecturer and tutor at Trinity College, Oxford, and author of  Literary Allusion in Harry Potter, has written a Hogwarts Professor Guest Post: What can link The Christmas Pig, Harry Potter, Nigel Molesworth and French butchers? As we wait for the publication day of The Christmas Pig, follow the trail of breadcrumbs Dr Groves has found after the jump



Unlocking clues to The Christmas Pig

Christmas Eve is a night for miracles and lost causes, a night when all things can come to life… even toys.
(Blurb for The Christmas Pig)

While Christmas could hardly be more important to Harry Potter pigs don’t get much of a look in. There is one Gryffindor Common Room password (‘Pig’s snout’), a hapless pig created when McGonagall Transfigures her desk, one luckless and greedy cousin who looks like a pig in a wig and one owl with an unusual nickname. In a traditional fairy tale world, the pig’s tail Hagrid bestows on Dudley would be a simple literalisation of his piggy nature, but Rowling underlines the symbolism while taking it one witty step further:

‘Meant ter turn him into a pig, but I suppose he was so much like a pig anyway there wasn’t much left ter do’ (Philosopher’s Stone, Chap 4).

More affectionate is Ron’s choice of ‘Pig’ as the nickname for Pigwidgeon – whose tiny size and feather-brained enthusiasm and energy (he is the Colin Creevy of the owl world) – make it an amusingly unsuitable moniker.

Rowling’s new story The Christmas Pig is released on October the 12th, and just like Harry Potter, it has both an annoying and a beloved pig in it. The Christmas Pig is bought as a substitute for Jack’s beloved lost toy ‘Dur Pig,’ but he proves an entirely inadequate replacement.

Rowling has told us two evocative things about her story so far. Firstly, that the loss of ‘Dur Pig’ (known as DP) is a metaphor for the lostness of the hero himself. Jim Field’s luminous imagining of the Land of the Lost has also been released – the land into which Jack and the Christmas Pig travel as they seek to find DP (and whatever it is that Jack has also lost). The Land of the Lost sounds like somewhere Rowling has long been interested in exploring:

‘Where do vanished objects go?’
‘Into non-being, which is to say, everything,’ replied Professor McGonagall.
(Deathly Hallows, Chapter 30)

Secondly, Rowling has told us that the story takes place on Christmas Eve – and that she knew the moment she had the idea that it ‘must’ take place on Christmas Eve because it is a day traditionally associated with magic: ‘The Christmas Pig is a magical story, but in a very different way to Harry Potter. You’re entering a world that runs according to its own peculiar magical laws and there is magic around Christmas Eve.’

Pleasingly, Rowling wore ‘key’ earrings to impart these snippets of information – intimating, perhaps, that there are farther clues to be unlocked…

For although Rowling has not released much information about The Christmas Pig, the launch of the new website ‘J.K. Rowling’s Stories,’ (a portal exclusively for her children’s writing) was timed to coincide with the run-up to the release of her new Christmassy children’s story. It seems probable, therefore, that it may contain some clues about it. There is, for example, a plush blue bunny which appears twice on this website, which (unless a reference to her first book ‘about a rabbit called Rabbit’) might reference a toy which we’ll be meeting in The Christmas Pig? It seems likely that there may also be a hint hidden in the blue unicorn nuzzling against a plasticine pig. The pig is clearly a reference to The Christmas Pig – so will the most iconic, magical animal, the unicorn, be appearing in this story too? But I also wonder if there is an unintentional hint about The Christmas Pig lurking on this new website.

In the section in which Rowling answers frequently asked questions about Harry Potter (‘9 ¾ Questions’) she answers the question ‘Where do the names of spells and charms come from?’ with:

They’re mostly made up, though some derive from old charms people thought genuinely worked, such as Avada Kedavra, from which came ‘abracadabra’. I used a good bit of pig Latin and took liberties with archaic words, too.

Rowling uses the phrase ‘pig Latin’ here, but this is not what she means. What she means is ‘cod Latin’ – a phrase she has used before in reference to Harry Potter’s Latin. ‘Cod,’ in this context, has nothing to with the fish, but is a modifier used to suggest a poor version of something:

Burlesque, mock; (also without satirical or humorous connotation) imitation, substitute, feigned. In later use sometimes also in the sense ‘not authentic, made-up’ (Oxford English Dictionary).

The word is probably derived from the Irish verb ‘cod’ meaning ‘to joke with’ or ‘to hoax’ and Rowling used twice (in reference to Harry Potter’s spells) in one 2005 interview. In this interview she spoke of her pleasure in the Hogwarts’s motto – Draco dormiens nunquam titillandus (‘Never tickle a sleeping dragon’) – and how she had not trusted to her own Latin skills for its creation:

You know the way that most school slogans are things like ‘Persevere’ and ‘Nobility, Charity and Fidelity’ or something – it just amused me to give an entirely practical piece of advice for the Hogwarts school motto.
Then a friend of mine who is a professor of Classics – my Latin was not up to the job (I did not think it should be cod Latin) it is good enough for cod Latin spells, that is, they used to be a mixture of Latin and other things; when it came to a proper Latin slogan for the school I wanted it to be right – I went to him and asked him to translate. I think he really enjoyed it, he rang me up and said, ‘I think I found the exactly right word, “Titillandus”’ – that was how that was dreamt up. (Newsround Interview 2005)

(For more this motto see my discussion here: Rowling Family Mottos.)

Rowling also, as it happens, used ‘cod’ in this way in another 2005 interview – although in a section that has never been published. Lev Grossman (who generously shared the transcript of this interview with me) asked Rowling about her ‘low’ fantasy setting, noting how unusual it was to have ‘a fantasy novel that’s integrated, geographically, into the real world, rather than being set in some faraway land.’ Rowling responded:

I really enjoyed the idea that we as Muggles just overlook. We just, we’re not insightful enough. It’s there, it’s present, all the time, but we’re just – it’s the way people’s mind’s work. In Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them I refer to all these clearly fictional works, and one of the fictional works I quote, as it were, in that book, is Philosophy of the Mundane: Why Muggles Prefer Not to Know. And I think we would all agree, if you’re absolutely determined not to see it, or not to entertain the notion that it can be, you will overlook evidence. So that’s how the wizarding world manages to thrive right under our very noses.
But again, that was the way I wanted to do it, because I wanted the Muggle world to be ever-present, and I wanted it to be very much a contemporary story. And the alternative really is to go back to a kind of cod middle earth. I mean, there are a limited number of ways you can describe another world. Is it part of our world? As in my case? I find that more interesting.

‘Cod’ may be much more familiar to us as a noun than an adjective, but there is plenty of evidence that it is an adjective Rowling knows well, and rather likes, and it is surprising that she has confused it (however tempting the substitution) with ‘pig.’

It is not English and do not make SENSE (Molesworth on Latin)

Rowling is quite right (as in her 2005 interview) to describe Harry Potter’s spells as ‘cod Latin:’ ‘cod Latin spells, that is, they used to be a mixture of Latin and other things.’ She is still writing these spells, of course, in 2005 so her slightly odd formulation (‘they used to be’) points towards her knowledge that by writing her own ‘cod Latin’ spells she is joining a long history in which practitioners have used not simply Latin, but specifically ‘mock’ Latin, for spellwork.

In medieval times Latin was the language of power, both spiritual and secular. It was the language of the Church on one hand, and of law, learning and ancient empire on the other. Those who used Latin in their spells were attempting to harness this power but of course it was perceived Latinity, not grammatical accuracy, which mattered. The way in which Latin was used in medieval Europe meant that the language itself – not just the meaning it conveyed – would have held intrinsic power for most people. Magical healers and spell makers, therefore, were quite content to use cod Latin.

Healing incantations in the fifteenth-century manuscript known as the Wolfsthurn handbook, for example, included one cure for toothache which instructed the reader to write ‘rex, pax, nax in Cristo filio suo’ on the sufferer’s cheek. ‘Rex’ (king) and ‘pax’ (peace) are Latin words, so ‘nax’ may be meaningless, but makes excellent sense as cod Latin. The manuscript contains other spells which jumble classical languages and gibberish, such as this spell to counter demonic possession: ‘Amara Tonta Tyra post hos firabis ficaliri Elypolis starras poly polyque liquelinarras buccabor uel barton vel Titram celi massis Metumbor o priczoni Jordan Ciriacus Valentinus.’1 It is not Latin, but specifically cod Latin, which is part and parcel of the history of witchcraft as magicians, necromancers and wise women key into the prestige of the language more than its precise meaning.

‘Cod Latin’ as Rowling rightly implies is the language of magic. ‘Pig Latin,’ however, is not. Although it might make sense to substitute ‘Pig Latin’ for ‘Cod Latin’ – especially in the mind of someone who has porcine things in the forefront of their consciousness right now – Rowling hasn’t just made up ‘pig Latin;’ it is simply that it doesn’t have anything to do with the spells in Harry Potter.

Pig Latin

Pig Latin is a century-old, coded language game in which you simply switch the initial consonant of a word to its end and add ‘ay.’ So ‘Harry Potter’ becomes ‘Arry-hay Otter-Pay.’ This is not, of course, how any of the Harry Potter spells are created – ‘Umos-lay’ doesn’t light anything up and Hermione doesn’t correct Ron’s intonation of ‘ingardium-Way eviosa-Lay.’ Harry Potter’s spells do not end in ‘ay’ (as all Pig Latin does) and (unlike Pig Latin, which is just jumbled English) they are based on Latin.

The ‘Pig’ in ‘Pig Latin’ sounds like a jokey way to describe it as a messy or ugly form of Latin, but it is possible that it derives from the related French slang long spoken by butchers – ‘Louchebém.’ Louchebém forms words in an almost identical way to Pig Latin (shifting the initial consonant to the end and adding set suffixes) and was traditionally used by butchers and meat-packers – its name, therefore, is ‘boucher’ (‘butcher’ in French) with the b placed at the end of the word and the suffix ‘–ème,’ added. Louchebém is a rarely used outside the meat industry, but there is another French form of Pig Latin which has a much wider currency. This is called ‘Verlan’ and given Rowling’s knowledge of French language and culture – her mother was half-French, she studied French for her degree, lived in Paris for a year, worked as a French teacher and even accepted her Légion d’Honneur in French – it is likely that she is familiar with it. Verlan is formed in precisely the same way as Pig Latin (just without the addition of ‘ay’) – as the name intimates: ‘Verlan’ is ‘à l’envers’ (‘reversed’ in French) split down the middle and reversed. A few words of Verlan are common French slang – such as ‘Tromé’ (for ‘Métro’), ‘Ouf’ (for ‘fou’ – crazy) and ‘Cimer’ (for ‘Merci’ )

When Rowling writes that ‘I used a good bit of pig Latin’ for the spells in Harry Potter she is making a slip based on the fact that The Christmas Pig at the forefront of her mind, so she shifted animals when she meant to say ‘cod Latin’ – but it presumably also means that she knows Pig Latin exists. And I am hoping that it was also a bit of a Freudian slip. For, as we know, the Christmas Pig can talk: ‘a night when all things can come to life… even toys.’ As Rowling has already connected Latin and magic in Harry Potter and as she knows Pig Latin exists, wouldn’t it make sense for her magically-talking pig to speak a little bit of Pig Latin? It seems to me just the kind of joke that would appeal to Rowling.

Looking forward to finding out on the 12th!

1 Kieckhefer, R. Magic in the Middle Ages (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 4.

Links to all of Beatrice Groves’ posts and podcasts about Potter, Fantastic Beasts, Casual Vacancy, and the Cormoran Strike mysteries can be found at her Pillar Post page at HogwartsProfessor.


  1. Forrest Leeson says

    Or Nax ← Panax → Panacea.

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