The interesting origins of a curious word
The most widely known and widely used meaning of the word ‘muggle’ is probably the one that J. K. Rowling invented for her Harry Potter series of books: namely, a person who does not possess magical skills. Normally written with a capital M, ‘Muggle’ is used, then, for those non-wizards in the world of Harry Potter. But the word’s origins can be traced back nearly eight centuries.
The first instance of the word, in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (1997; renamed Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in the US), comes from an old wizard in a violet cloak: ‘Rejoice, for You-Know-Who has gone at last! Even Muggles like yourself should be celebrating, this happy, happy day!’
But the OED reports that ‘Muggle’ has also been used in an extended, allusive way, to refer to somebody in normal everyday life (i.e. outside the fantastical Harry Potter universe, where most of us live) who lacks a particular skill and is therefore inferior in some way. So, somebody who hangs out with a lot of people who can sing or roll their tongue or wiggle their ears, but who cannot do this sort of thing himself (or herself), might be labelled a ‘Muggle’ by his (or her) peers. We suppose.
But the word ‘muggle’ has a long history in the English language, and indeed, in English literature. Long before Rowling put pen to paper, the word had a whole host of other meanings. Its first known appearance in English literature was in the thirteenth century, when Middle English was still an emerging language (fusing Norman French influences with Anglo-Saxon, or ‘Old English’), a century before Geoffrey Chaucer would lend it more status as a language fit for poetry. The poet Layamon (or Laȝamon), whose epic poem Brut recounts the (mythical) founding of Britain by a Roman named Brutus, writes of a ‘muggle’ as ‘a tail resembling that of a fish’: ‘ Þa tailes heom comen on..Iscend wes þat mon-cun. muggles’. The Latin word mugil was used to denote various species of fish, so this appears to have been the derivation of the word. However, Layamon is thought to have lived a little earlier than the time when the surviving manuscript of his poem was written (c. 1275): he probably lived in the late twelfth or early thirteenth century. So this places the word ‘muggle’ even farther back into, if not quite the dawn, then certainly the early morning of English literature. (Beowulf was already several centuries in the past when Laȝamon wrote Brut.)
Then, in the early seventeenth century, Shakespeare’s contemporary, the playwright Thomas Middleton (who contributed several lines to Macbeth), used the word ‘muggle’ with a different meaning – namely, ‘young woman’, and probably more specifically ‘sweetheart’: ; Oh the parting of vs twaine, Hath causde me mickle paine, and I shall nere be married, Vntill I see my muggle againe.’ This was in Middleton’s 1608 play Your Five Gallants. The etymology is different from Layamon’s: probably from the Old French mulier denoting a wife.
Then, in the 1920s, the word took on another meaning. George Maines and Bruce Grant’s Wise-crack Dictionary (1926) defines ‘muggle’ as ‘joint’, and ‘muggles’, in the plural, as marijuana. Two years later, Louis Armstrong gave the word further currency when he named one of his records Muggles. The origins of ‘muggles’ in this druggy sense remain swathed in a smoky haze of mystery.
So, although Rowling has given the word ‘muggle’ a new meaning and a new lease of life, its origins and history are a complex and curious one. One wonders what the word will come to mean in another hundred years’ time.
Continue to explore the curious world of language with our post about the origins of the spoonerism and our pick of the best trivia books for word-lovers. You might also enjoy our pick of ‘lazy’ synonyms.
Image: J. K. Rowling in 2010, via Wikimedia Commons.