HogPro Mailbag: Alternative Etymology of Muggle

Another Great Letter! Keep those Theories and Questions coming!

Dear Professor,

After seeing Deathly Hallows Part 1, I have recently begun to re-read the Harry Potter series, which I’m now understanding in a whole new light, thanks to discovering your wonderful essay on Literary Alchemy. Also, I was bowled over by the Vanity Fair/Gaunt connection, which made me wonder if you would be interested in my accidental discovery of the etymology of the word, muggle.

Apparently, “muggle”, if I am to understand this correctly, is a Celtic loan word to Middle English–and it means a person with a tail. (I also think JK meant it to mean a non-believer). The word is used in a story about St. Augustine. Apparently, he was on a mission trying to convert non believers to Christianity. They stoned him, he prayed to God for vengeance, and God Gave the non-believers tails.

Remember when Hagrid cursed Dudley with a pigs tail?

Here is the quote from a book on early Celtic/Gaelic language:

Tha tailes heo oomen on,
Tber uoren hoo magen iteled beon,
Iscend wes that mon-can,
Muggles heo hafden,
And ine hirede sBlches
Men cleopcth heom muglingeny

(Then tails came upon them : there were they tailed.
Disgraced was that man-race : they had muggles, and
in every company men calleth them muglings”)

The MS. Otno has moggies and moglynges. It is an old Celtic word.

Forgive me if you already have written on this subject, I actually googled this to see if you or any one else has written about it related to Harry Potter, and I found nothing. If you have, I would very much like to read it, if not, I am curious to know your thoughts…


Well, LA, that is a fascinating find! I hope that the HogPro All-Pros on duty today will give you their thoughts on this. Please let us know the title of the book, too, if you have a chance, so we can check it out.

I’m going to restrict my comments on this possibility to answering your request for forgiveness (!)  only because I have written on this subject recently! I’m not sure why you need forgiveness, as you may be right and I wrong, but, for what it’s worth, one of my talks last summer in Orlando was on the reason Ms. Rowling set the defining event in Muggle-Magic history in the late 17th century, which discussion revealed the real world Muggles, namely, the historic Muggletonians. They become non-Magic folk in Ms. Rowling’s version of English history because this sect of non-conformists was at war with the Seekers and Quakers, her Radical Reformation hermetic Christians and Magi, in that time-frame.

The Muggletonians, while not Church of England by any stretch, had a relatively profane and mundane theology compared to the Christians of the time that are alchemists and consumed by ideas of individual transformation in Christ. FYI, the Muggletonians got their name from one of their inspired founders, not because they had tails!

To read all about that, my Infinitus 2010 talk on the subject was published along with eight other essays by and conversations with my fellow Potter Pundits, James Thomas and Travis Prinzi, in the collection Harry Potter Smart Talk, which, of course, I recommend you purchase! I hope you’ll let me know what you think.

Thanks again, LA, for sharing this alternative meaning for the word ‘Muggle’! I especially enjoyed the possibility you suggest of Muggle equating to non-believer as per the story about St. Augustine. I worry, though, that, during the Potter Panic among many believers early last decade, Ms. Rowling might have imagined that believers were as Mugglish as their non-believing friends…


  1. what was the book? The original manuscript from which that text came?

  2. Louise M. Freeman says

    Do we want to bring up that “muggle” was also a slang term for marijuana in the 1920’s? Or would that simply be fuel for Harry Haters.

  3. Well, that’s interesting, Professor of Phrenology! But don’t you think that it may have had that from “muddle” as it muddled one’s thought processes? It would have been entirely legal then, too, wouldn’t it? So there raises its Hydra head again the problematic of legality versus morallity. And, since tobacco cigarette smoking is becoming so unlawful in so many places, even for employment, are we on the verge of another “muggle” escapade (as in the ineffectiveness of outlawing maryjane, cocaine, and a number of other banned substances)?

  4. That’s very interesting! I wonder where Rowling got the name “Hogwarts”? Probably some obscure hagiography or something!

  5. From the invaluable Harry Potter Lexicon: Hogwarts

    The name “Hogwarts” is actually the name of a flower. JKR said: “Ideas come from all sorts of places and sometimes I don’t realise where I got them from. A friend from London recently asked me if I remembered when we first saw Hogwarts. I had no idea what she was talking about until she recalled the day we went to Kew Gardens and saw those lilies that were called Hogwarts. I’d seen them seven years before and they’d bubbled around in my memory. When Hogwarts occurred to me as a name for the school, I had no idea where it came from.” (SMH)

    That the school is named for a lily, of course, is interesting.


  6. I was gonna say! Any connections with the lily in the thorns/lily of the field/Lily Potter/ALCHEMY IN GENERAL?!

  7. From what she says, of course, no connection at all. The flower-school connection was entirely unconscious. Given the preponderance of flower allusions and specifically lilies, which are an alchemical note in the white stage, it is fun that her subconscious noted this…

  8. any thoughts about the “Hog” in Hogwarts and Hogsmeade being related to the Greek ἅγιος, holy (as in “hagiography)?

  9. I doubt it. As John said, “Hogwarts” comes (subconsciously) from a lily that Rowling saw during a visit to Kew Gardens — the Hogwort. If the etymology comes from ἅγιος, it would mean that Hogwarts means “holy warts.” Kind of gross. However, it does make sense for the seemingly pub-centric hamlet of Hogsmeade, where mead very well may be considered “holy.” Although the “hog” in both names could just be some sort of pig-fetish of Rowling’s. Notice the proliferation of porcine imagery around the area: Hogwarts’ winged boar statues, the Hog’s Head tavern, etc.

  10. Thanks for the response and I look forward to reading your book!
    Here is a link to the original google e-book book I was reading which mentions muggles and St. Augustine (near the beginning).

    I also found some other references, and the original poem, to which the above is referring to:

    ‘Middle-English Muggles, Muglinges,’ Roland Blenner-Hassett
    PMLA: Vol. 68, No. 4 (Sep., 1953), pp. 917-920 (article consists of 4 pages)
    Published by: Modern Language Association
    Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/459808

    and here is a link to Layamon’s poem.

  11. I am reading James Shapiro’s 1606 William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear, in which it is mentioned that at that point the Bard had lodgings on the corner of Silver Street and Muggle Street in Cripplegate. The linked dictionary to the Kindle version notes Muggle as a 1990’s word used by JKR which very obviously not the case with this citation.

  12. Timothy Nelson says

    So, I was reading Laȝamon’s “Brut”, and ran across the word “muggles”. A Google led me here. It seems the Middle English has been a bit mangled. Here’s a version (original orthography preserved, but scribal abbreviations expanded).

    Þa tailes heom comen on,
    þer uoren heo maȝen iteled beon,
    Iscend wes þat mon-cun,
    Muggles heo hafden,
    And inne hirede ælches
    Men cleopeth heom muglingas

    My slightly more literal translation is:

    The tails them came on,
    there-fore they may tailed be.
    Shamed was that man-kin, (ie. people-group)
    Muggles they had,
    And in assembly each,
    Men calleth them muglings.

    Note also the similarity between the muggles/muglingas relationship, and the relationship between Tolkien’s words for the Rohirrim. The Rohirrim are the descendants of Eorl, and Tolkien calls them “Eorlingas” (side note: much though we might tend to see that and say “EOR-lin-gas”, with the secondary accent on the “gas”, the correct way would be “Eorl-ing-as”, with the secondary accent on “ing”).

    Regarding Brut, my recommendation is to read the PDF by Sir Frederic Madden. It contains an accurate transcription of two different manuscripts (scribal abbreviations and all), as well as a translation into Modern English.


    There are 3 volumes. This is because it’s a 32000+ line poem (the term “epic poem” /meaning/ something in those days). The appropriate word is found in volume III, line 29588.


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