Harry Potter and the Semiotic Analysis: A Few Observations of the Harry Potter Series (Part 3)



Those who know me personally are already aware that I, like many, have been sucked well and truly into Harry Potter fandom (I have my sister to blame/thank for this). Although many people have disregarded it as “just a kid’s story”, like I once did, I’ve found that the more I read these books, the more intricate details I have noticed about them. From a critical perspective, it’s interesting to note how Rowling relies upon duality and opposition, and upon parallels and foreshadowing, to construct the narrative of her series. In this series of posts, I will briefly discuss a few of these, referring to relevant volumes from Rowling’s text where necessary. I’m not going to get all technical; I just thought this would be fun. I’ll dabble in semiotics and structural analysis, undertake a few explorations of certain themes, and unite a few fan theories along the way if I can.

So, in case it wasn’t already obvious, this post is full of ***spoilers*** (although I doubt there’s many people left in the world who don’t have a basic working knowledge of the plot by now!)

Part 3: The Hidden Magic of Rowling’s Etymology

Right then. Let’s get one thing clear right from the outset – J.K. Rowling is a full-on language nerd. Every element of the wizarding world she has constructed in her books is deliberately and cleverly named. Although the dualities she creates in her invented words are mostly rooted in her etymological knowledge of French and Latin, others are simply wordplays or nods to certain concepts, places and/or ideas. The more you look, the more you find!

In this post, I aim to point out just a few of the marvellous word games that Rowling has been playing with her readers. The consideration will be split into the following categories: place names, species names, character names, spells, and magical objects.

Place Names

Many of the place names in Harry Potter are invocative of the atmosphere, character and/or inhabitants of the location they describe. It’s no mistake that 24 Privet Drive, home of the Dursleys, takes its name from a particularly rigid form of hedge, or that Sirius’ house, 12 Grimmauld Place, is, indeed, a very grim and very old place. For me, The Burrow invokes a mental image of rabbits (although a ‘burrow’ can refer to the underground home of many different creatures), which fits well with the description of the Weasleys, who have “more children can they can afford”, and whose home has been repeatedly enlarged and extended to create more space for the growing family.


Another interesting couple of street names are those of Diagon Alley and Knockturn Alley. Knockturn Alley, a place you would not want to be seen and where ‘dark’ magical artefacts are sold, becomes ‘nocturnally’ when you say it quickly (i.e. ‘by night’). Diagon Alley becomes ‘diagonally’, or possibly ‘diagonal ley’ (perhaps a reference to ley lines, which some believe connect ancient sites of Britain and have magical powers). Diagon Alley is, of course, a magical street, hidden from the Muggle population, but running straight through a highly urbanised and well-populated area of London.

Other references are more subtle. For instance, the wizard prison Azkaban, which is meant to be inescapable but is subject to a number of breakouts, shares similarities with Alcatraz (a high security prison from which a number of inmates broke out in June 1962 – later the subject of a book by J. Campbell Bruce and a film directed by Don Siegel and starring Clint Eastwood).



Species Names

Obviously, many of the creatures which Rowling refers to already exist in mythology (trolls, centaurs, merpeople, and so on). However, in the cases where Rowling is responsible for naming a species or subspecies for herself, she often uses clever little etymological references designed to make geeks like me smile!

Take, for instance, the term ‘Squib’. In the Harry Potter series, this refers to a child with no magical powers born to magical parents. This term originates from the colloquial phrase ‘damp squib’, which denotes a firework or explosive that has failed to go off due to a fault.


The term ‘Muggle’ is also based on a colloquialism – ‘mug’, an English slang term for fool or idiot – as confirmed by the writer herself in an interview last year.

Another interesting term that Rowling uses is ‘Animagus’ – referring, of course, to a wizard who is able to transform at will into an animal. ‘Magus’ is another word for wizard, and so by combining this with the prefix ‘ani-‘ (with ‘anima’ being a clear reference to the change to animal form), she manages to give this process a name which aptly and succinctly describes it in its entirety.

Character Names

OK, in terms of character names, I could do this all day, as there are so many which are significant. I’ve just chosen a few of my favourites here though. The first and foremost name to be considered has to be Lord Voldemort’s. It’s important to note that, just like English, there are a number of homonyms in French (words that sound identical when pronounced but have different meanings depending on the context of use). ‘Vol’ is one of them. It can mean either ‘flight’ or ‘theft’, and so ‘vol de mort’ can be translated as either ‘flight from death’ or ‘theft of death’ – both of which are rather appropriate to describe his character’s main goal and motivation.


Sirius Black also has a rather significant name. Sirius is a star linked with the star system Canus (canine, of course, being another way to describe the species of dogs like the one he transforms into). When he transforms into Padfoot, he is black, just like his name. The name Sirius can be translated from the Ancient Greek as “scorching” or “glowing”, referring to the fact that it is the brightest star in the sky. Sirius’ character is known for being popular, charismatic and talented (before the turn of events which lead to his incarceration).

Another interesting name is that assigned to Ludo Bagman, the head of the Ministry’s Department of Magical Games and Sports who cheats the Weasley twins out of their winnings for betting on the Quidditch World Cup. ‘Ludo’ is Latin, and can be used to describe ‘play’ and ‘sport’, but also refers to deluding or deceiving someone when used in certain contexts. This impression of deceptiveness is emphasised by the surname ‘Bagman’, as ‘bagman’ was the term used to describe early US mobsters who collected money from illegal gambling and for protection rackets. Interestingly, his name may be an abbreviated form of another Latin phrase – ‘victor ludorum’ – which means ‘winner of the games’ (as he was a highly successful Quidditch player).

I rather like Olympe Maxime’s name, too. ‘Olympe’ is invocative of both ‘Olympians’ (i.e. those who surpass all others in scope) and of Mt. Olympus (the largest mountain in Greece). This first part of her name could refer to both her physical size and her magical abilities (which Hagrid notes are impressive).  ‘Maxime’ is French for ‘principle’, and Madame Maxime is the ‘principal’ of Beauxbatons School. Combined, she is the ‘giant principal’ – which is a pretty apt description!

The examples go on and on. Arabella Figg, who is mentioned in passing as a harmless, cat-loving, “batty” old lady in the first four novels but reveals herself in Book 5 to be a Squib who has been surreptitiously keeping a watchful eye on Harry for years on Dumbledore’s behalf, also has a rather appropriate name. ‘Figg’ symbolises the fig leaf (that which keeps certain things secret and covered up – for instance, in the Bible, it is used to hide Adam and Eve’s nakedness).

Broderick Bode – member of the Ministry’s Department of Mysteries – does, too. A ‘bode’ is a warning or omen. His mental impairments do, indeed, serve as a warning of what Voldemort is trying to do in Department of Mysteries in Book 5.

Fawkes – Dumbledore’s loyal pet phoenix – could be named for Guy Fawkes, the English conspirator whose failed attempt to blow up Parliament on November 5th 1605 is still celebrated every year on Bonfire Night… bonfires and fireworks seem like a fitting celebration for a phoenix, don’t you think?


Seriously, I could do this all day. I mean, have you noticed, for instance, that if you switch the first letters of Crabbe and Goyle, you get ‘Grabbe’ and ‘Coyle’ (‘grab’ and ‘coil’), which is exactly what a snake does to its prey. Both boys are in Slytherin House (represented by a serpent), and are in the grips of Lord Voldemort’s dark magic.



A number of objects in the Harry Potter series also have etymologically significant names. For example, the name ‘Horcrux’ is formulated from two French words: ‘hors’ (meaning ‘outside’) and ‘crux’ (meaning ‘cross’). As the cross could be understood to be a cultural symbol of death (e.g. Jesus’ crucifixion, and the multiple instances where decorative crosses adorn grave sites), the phrase ‘Horcrux’ could suggest being outside of, and beyond the reach of, death. As Jesus’ crucifixion is inevitably related to his resurrection, the cross can also be a symbol of life or rebirth, and so ‘Horcrux’ also could suggest life or regeneration outside of the physical body.  This, of course, is its purpose – to make it impossible for Voldemort to be killed, and to allow him to resurrect his physical body.

Another object with an intriguing name is the ‘Pensieve’. The word ‘pensive’ refers to a deep, serious, and often brooding, thought process, and is derived from the French word (same spelling), which signifies thought itself. This is significant, given that the purpose of this object is to allow the user to siphon off, and sort through, their own thoughts and memories. This process of sifting through thoughts is further reinforced in the etymology by the suffix ‘-sieve’, as a sieve is a device used for exactly this (albeit in cooking or such like, rather than magic).


The potion ‘Veritaserum’ gets its name from the Latin ‘veritas’ (meaning ‘truth’), with ‘serum’ being another word for ‘potion’. Again, there are a multitude of examples, and I’m just covering a few here.



I could dedicate an entire post exclusively to looking the names of spells in Harry Potter, but again, I’ve highlighted just a few of my favourites here. Pretty much all of the spells in Rowling’s series have solid reasoning behind them, and so if you look closely, you’ll start to notice more and more just how apt the spell names are.

I think the most important one to discuss first off is ‘Avada Kedavra’. This is the spell to perform the killing curse – one of the three Unforgiveable Curses. There are arguably two translations which could be offered for this. The first, ‘abra kadabra’ (yes, that magical phrase all magicians say before making something disappear) is Arabic, and translates as ‘let the things be destroyed’. Another interesting similarity noted is to an Aramaic phrase, ‘abhadda kedhabhra’, which means ‘disappear like this word’. Both phrases essentially refer to destruction of some kind, and Rowling’s spell appears to be a combination of the two.

‘Patronus’ means ‘protector’ in Latin, so the spell ‘expecto patronum’ (to summon a Patronus, which is a protective being that can drive away Dementors) can be translated as ‘expect a protector’. Apparation – the magical ability to disappear and reappear at any location – is also taken from the Latin ‘appareo’ (meaning ‘to become visible’).


‘Nox’ – the spell to extinguish light from the tip of the user’s wand – is Latin for ‘darkness’ for ‘night’. ‘Accio’ – the summoning charm – is also Latin, meaning ‘to call to or summon’. Expelliarmus – the disarming charm – is a combination of the Latin ‘expel’ (to force or drive out; eject forcefully) and ‘arma’ (weapons). Impedimenta – used for obstructing pursuers – is based on ‘impedio’ in Latin (meaning ‘to hinder’).

I’m probably missing hundreds of great ones – why not suggest  a few in the comments below?


More to come in further posts in this series!

(Images: Warner Bros. Studios)

What a Beautiful Language #6: The Words That Time Forgot


One of the things I love most about the English language is that it is full of hidden gems. I’m sure all of you at some point of your lives have experienced the joy of learning a particularly satisfying new word; one which perfectly summarises something that, up until that moment, you never quite had the right words to explain.

Some are borrowed, some are invented, and, sadly, some are lost. Here, I thought I’d list a few of the many words that I think should make a comeback…



This is something I reckon most of us could relate to To ‘quomodocunquize’ is to make money in any way that you can – a little like hustling, minus the gangster-esque overtones. Scotsman Thomas Urquhart is noted in the OED as coiner of the phrase when, in 1652, he complained about “those quomodocunquizing clusterfists and rapacious varlets.”

(Sidenote: ‘Clusterfists’ is an equally loveable word – so evocative!)


‘Uhtceare’ is an Old English word which describes the act of waking up before dawn and then not being able to get back to sleep because you’re worried about something. I guess some things never change!


‘Fudgel’ is an eighteenth-century verb, and it refers to the act of pretending to work when you’re not actually doing anything at all. So, the next time you see one of your colleagues secretly faffing online when they should be working, you know you’ve got a fudgeller on your hands.


A phrase originated from the 1590s, referring to the slush that’s left over once the snow has partially melted.


Referring to a man of short stature with a disproportionately high opinion of himself – think modern-day Napoleon. Or a shorter Donald Trump.


A term to describe someone with ample and aesthetically-shaped buttocks. Back in the 1640s, this is how they said “DAT ASS”….


A ‘quockerwodger’ is a wooden puppet, controlled by strings. It serves rather beautifully as an insult, don’t you think?

What a Beautiful Language #5: The Importance of Emphasis in Pronunciation


By now, I think it’s become clear that I am in love with the intricacies of the English language. However, I must admit that I struggle to explain some of the oddities our beautiful language presents us with. Take, for example, the special relationship emphasis and pronunciation have with one another in English.

Rather than choosing to assign a different word (a signifier) or even a different spelling to words which have entirely different meanings (signifieds), the English language uses a system which uses shifts in emphasis in the pronunciation of certain words, allowing arrangements of letters to be reused for a variety of purposes. This can either occur through a variation in phonemes, or just be actioned through a change in the emphasised syllable. Sometimes, there is little or no relationship between the two meanings that are assigned to what is, in written form at least, the same word.

Confusing, right? Interestingly, our brain doesn’t seem to think so. English speakers actually find it very easy to contextualise and effectively differentiate between different uses of the same letter arrangements, ensuring that the meaning (and the required pronunciation) for each word is usually clear to us immediately.

Test the theory for yourself, by reading aloud the following sentences:

A bass was painted on the head of the bass drum.

A seamstress and a sewer fell down into a sewer line.

After a number of injections my jaw got number.

He could lead if he would get the lead out.

How can I intimate this to my most intimate friend?

I did not object to the object.

I had to subject the subject to a series of tests.

Since there is no time like the present, he thought it was time to present the present.

The bandage was wound around the wound.

The buck does funny things when the does are present.

The dump was so full that it had to refuse more refuse.

The farm was used to produce produce.

The insurance was invalid for the invalid.

The soldier decided to desert his dessert in the desert.

The wind was too strong to wind the sail.

There was a row among the oarsmen about how to row.

They were too close to the door to close it.

To help with planting, the farmer taught his sow to sow.

Upon seeing the tear in the painting I shed a tear.

We must polish the Polish furniture.

When shot at, the dove dove into the bushes.

Instinctively, most (if not all) of you will have known the difference between sets of identically spelled words, and been able to make sense of these sentences without any real difficulty. Isn’t that incredible? Due to changes in emphasis during pronunciation, and the use of different phonemes, the same rearrangement of letters can be used and reused again, without any confusion between speakers. When you’re limited to 26 characters in the language, having linguistic tools like this in our arsenal clearly gives English an advantage over other languages which are not able to do the same.

Does anyone know of any examples of this, either in English or in another language? Let me know in the comments box below! 🙂

What a Beautiful Language #4: The Importance of Word Placement


Another interesting element of the English language just struck me – albeit a strange thought for a Wednesday morning.

In English, perhaps more than in any other language (although I’d be interested to hear examples from other languages of this), the placement of certain words can make a huge difference to the way that the sentence, as a whole, is interpreted.

Take for instance, the following sentence:

He told her that he loved her.

Nice and simple, right? Now, try inserting the word “only” into that sentence. You’ll find that, depending on where you choose to place the additional word, the meaning of the sentence changes. That’s the magic of English. Although all versions of the sentence make sense in terms of English grammar and sentence construction, some of the differences between the statements created are actually quite pronounced:

Only he told her that he loved her.

He only told her that he loved her.

He told only her that he loved her.

He told her only that he loved her.

He told her that only he loved her.

He told her that he only loved her.

He told her that he loved only her.

He told her that he loved her only.

Statement 1 implies that the male expressor is the only source of love for the female recipient.

Statement 2, in contrast, sounds like the commentary of a third party, and has quite an informal and colloquial tone (I can’t help but imagine some spectator exclaiming “‘Ere! ‘E’s only gone an’ told er’ he loves ‘er!”).

In Statement 3, the meaning shifts, so that the male subject is exclusive in his love for the unnamed woman of this sentence.

Statement 4 is similar, in that the woman is the only person to be told that she is loved by this man, but this sentence has connotations of infidelity (i.e. that perhaps he has many sexual partners, but only one ‘lover’).

Again, in Statement 5, the meaning shifts – this time, there is an implication of an abusive relationship taking place, as the statement this time is basically a warning that this man is the only person who will ever love her.

Statement 6 is interesting, in that it takes the importance and value of love the topic of the sentence – it’s only love, after all, what does it really mean?

Statements 7 and 8 are perhaps the most similar, as they express largely similar sentiments, but even here, the implication of the latter is of an earlier time; a different manner of speaking.

This is an oddity which rarely occurs in language – take the same phrase in German (“Er sagte ihr dass er sie liebte”) and mix up the word order, and nothing happens. Germanic language structure allows for variations in word sequencing without changing the meaning. Whilst this is perhaps a more efficient language solution, it eliminates a whole world of possibilities that can be created through the subtle combination of words.

This, for me, is where English comes alive – it is not only the words chosen, but the order in which they are presented, that dictates the meaning of any given sentence. As a creative writer, this allows me to experiment and create in a way that I would be unable to in another dialect.

Although colonialism inevitably is the primary reason why English is so widespread, I like to think that one of the reasons why English authors, poets and playwrights are so heartily celebrated is that they were enabled to create vivid, multi-layered meanings in their work by the language that they speak. Though the greats – Shakespeare, Blake, Joyce, Wilde, and so on, ad infinitum –  undoubtedly had beautiful minds, they also had an incredibly beautiful language with which they could work. Hurrah for English!


Make A Meaning…


Not sure if any of you are aware of the wonderful project currently being undertaken by Alice Belgrove via Behance, but I think it’s something really quite special. Click here to see the project so far…

Basically, Alice is intent on assigning extinct English words new meanings, so that they can be reincarnated and reintroduced into the language. She invites members of the public to contact her in order to be assigned a word – that person then decides what the new meaning of the word will be.

Some are funny, witty, inspired, thought-provoking and/or downright laughable.  I’d thought I’d share with you my own two contributions.

Drollicdrollic   droh-lick
(adjective), (slang)

A negative statement of opinion, used to describe situations inducing enough mental trauma to bring on physical symptoms of pain.

Describing a hellish or near-impossible task

Specifically, the sensation of having one’s head ‘bashed in’ by overwhelming amounts of emotional and/or intellectual information



charabanc     sha-rah-bank
(adjective & noun)

The name given to a personal collection of low monetary, but high sentimental, value

The box of old memories left behind by friends/relatives when they pass away

The act of hoarding away reminders and keepsakes of happy and/or significant memories





What a Beautiful Language #3: Regional Variations in the Assignment of Nouns (UK)


For me, one of the most intriguing elements of UK culture is the fact that, despite our comparatively minimal size (when compared to, say, Russia or America), we are still inhabited by a multitude of heterogeneous communities, which are usually (but not always) identifiable by their geographical location within the country. Within England, for instance, there is often talk of a divide between North and South – an issue which is often framed by a series of assumptions based on socioeconomic status, class and background. However, even when looking at a particular region, such as the North East, there are clear distinctions between communities which are situated relatively close together – a ‘Geordie’ (inhabitant of Newcastle-upon-Tyne), for instance, is quite distinct from a ‘Mackem’ (resident of the Sunderland area), and one would not take kindly to being mistaken for the other.

I find that in order to really get to know a place, you need to take a look at the region’s unique dialect. Of course, accent and pronunciation are inevitably a factor here, but it is perhaps more revealing to examine the nouns (i.e. names of things) that are collectively agreed upon within any given community. The naming process is an intrinsic part of the way that humans understand and interact with the world, but it only works if the system is mutually agreed by others – so, for example, it is no good referring to the remote control as a ‘zapper’, if everyone you are communicating with only recognises this as a ‘doofer’ or a ‘flipper’ (incidentally, the British have more than 50 names for this device, which differ from household to household).  Interestingly, I have found that people can become quite passionately, vehemently defensive of their use (and their community’s use) of certain words, seeing their word as the ‘real’ name for something and being dismissive of all others.

Take, for instance, the names given to bread by different communities in the UK. True, we all call a loaf a loaf, but I have witnessed (and, I will confess, sometimes participated in) many heated debates about what constitutes a roll, bap, bun, batch, barm, teacake muffin or cob. Anyone who has stepped into a bakery (or sandwich shop) in an unfamiliar part of the country will have no doubt encountered problems with this: ask for a bun anywhere but the North West and you’re likely to be served something with icing, and in areas in the Midlands, asking for a blueberry muffin would only get you a bread roll full of fruit (and, most likely, a rather bemused-looking server).

For your average southerner, a bread roll needs no other name. However, as you start to head north, the assigned noun undergoes some interesting changes, as can be seen on the map below:

The Bread Map(Image taken from Chronicle Live, 2013, via Us Vs Th3m)

This map oversimplifies some of the oddities that arise in smaller areas, as it only considers the most prominent noun used. If you look closer, you will find that depending on their size and area of origin, bread rolls can be barm cakes and oven bottoms (Lancashire), cobs (East Midlands), bread cakes (Yorkshire), blaa (Ireland), stotties (North East), bannocks and butteries (Scotland), nudgers and bin lids (Merseyside) and batches (Shropshire). Bap is commonly used all over Britain and, rather confusingly, it also describes lots of different types of bread.

Another interesting variation arises when looking at what different communities call their midday and evening meals. Whereas everybody seems to agree that what is eaten in the morning is ‘breakfast’, after that, all bets are off! Depending on whereabouts in the country you are, you may be having your tea, supper or dinner.

As with many other things in Britain, the origins of these noun variations are rooted firmly in differences in socioeconomic status and designated class. In the former industrial heartlands of the North (Yorkshire, Lancashire and the far North), people often use ‘dinner’ to mean a midday meal or lunch. Children eat ‘school dinners’, and their parents give them ‘dinner money’ to pay for them. Lunch is widely understood, of course, but ‘dinner’ as a midday meal is something that’s seems to have stuck. ‘Supper’, in contrast, seems to be reversed exclusively for the upper classes and residents of the South.

Evening Meal Map

(Image taken from Chronicle Live, 2013, via Us Vs Th3m)

 It seems there are many things we can’t agree on, even down to the names of footwear, trousers, ditches and alleyways (which, where I’m from, is a ‘dyke’ and a ‘jitty’, respectively), or the names of childhood games… in many ways, there are many different forms of English being used and spoken throughout the country at once! Isn’t that a wonderful thing?

Feel free to comment below with any examples of amusing or interesting regional variations of which you are aware…

What a Beautiful Language #2: Variations in Spelling and Pronunciation (Oddities and Inconsistencies)


The English language has its fair share of quirks, arising mainly from the fact that English borrows so many of its words from other languages, leading to inconsistencies and oddities in spelling and pronunciation that, for a non-native speaker, might be difficult to comprehend. .English, then, being the linguistic equivalent of a sponge, has a myriad of rules that don’t actually apply all that often – anyone who encountered “‘i’ before ‘e’, except after ‘c'” at school will be able to attest to that! There are so many exceptions that such grammatical strategies become largely redundant.

So, why am I celebrating this? The reason I think diversity in our language is such a good thing is because it shows that despite so-called English superiority – before, during, and after the colonial Empire – the language has found a way to fight back. There are linguistic records that cannot be purged; evidence that the speakers of English are so diverse, and their use of the language is so creative and adaptive, that it belongs to all of us. The English language becomes a sort of tapestry, then – weaved of words and history, trends and variations. To me, that is a truly beautiful thing.

One of the most amusing things about our language is the way is which we must try and decide which spelling is ‘right’. For instance, the playwright George Bernard Shaw once pointed out that the word ‘FISH’ could arguably be spelt ‘GHOTI’, because…:

In the words ‘tough’ and ‘rough’, ‘the ‘GH’ is pronounced ‘F’

In words such as ‘women’, the ‘O’ is actually pronounced as an ‘I’

In the word ‘nation’, ‘TI’ is alternatively pronounced as ‘SH’

Therefore, arguably, GH + O + TI = FISH!

For Shaw, this was a source of endless frustration – when he died in the 1960s, he even left the monetary contents of his will to a fund intended to establish the Shavian alphabet, but it never really took off – but for me, it is a source of joy and amusement.

Take another example: potato. A plain, old word… right? Wrong. Arguably, you could break this word down in the same manner as above, and result in the spelling ‘GHOUGHPHTHEIGHTTEEAU’! Allow me to explain exactly how…:

In the word ‘hiccough’, the ‘GH’ is pronounced as a ‘P’

In words like ‘dough’, the ‘OUGH’ is actually pronounced ‘O’

In the word ‘phthisis’, the ‘PHTH’ is pronounced simply as ‘T’

In the words ‘eight’ and ‘neighbour’ , the ‘EIGH’  sound is pronounced ‘A’

In the word ‘gazette’, ‘TTE’ is actually pronounced just as  a simple ‘T’

In words such as ‘plateau’, the ‘EAU’ sound as pronounced as ‘O’

Therefore, arguably, GH + OUGH + PHTH + EIGH + TTE + EAU = POTATO!

Now, I’m not saying we should implement these sorts of spellings, but they do emphasise just how varied our language has become. For instance, in the above example alone, we have a variety of inherited words – ‘plateau’ is from Old French, whereas ‘gazette’ is Italian. ‘Eight’ and ‘dough’ both originate from old Germanic, whereas ‘neighbour’ is an adapted old English word (‘nēahgebūr’, from nēah ‘nigh, near’ + gebūr ‘inhabitant, peasant, farmer’).

In some English words, there are no primary vowels at all (the ‘primary’ vowels being a ,e, i, o and u) – like ‘rhythm’, ‘sky’, ‘hymn’ and ‘why’ – and others without consonants – ‘euouae’ and ‘iouea’! That, combined with the fact that vowels and vowel pairings can represent a variety of vocal sounds, makes pronunciation a funny thing when it comes to English. Many, like Shaw, have argued that spellings should be standardised, and should better represent the physical sounds of speech. There are even people who solely use the ‘phonetic transcription’ method of spelling – i.e. spelling words the same way they are said by combining phonemes – although this is not recognised as ‘standard’ form of English for everyday use. Thus:

‘PUSH’ would be denoted as ‘/pʊʃ/’

‘PRESSURE’ becomes ‘/preʃə/’

‘PLEASURE’ translates into ‘/pleʒə/’

Although this system seeks to create a universal system and certainly has its uses, arguably there is a far simpler alternative emerging naturally from our technology-based culture. By this, I am referring to the use of ‘text-speak’ – the abbreviations and acronyms being used by the younger generation of Internet and mobile phones. Though, as a language lover, there is a part of me that wants to scream ‘NOOOOOOOOOO!‘ every time I see someone type ‘LOL’ instead of actually laughing, or use ‘I LUV U’ or ‘I ❤ U’ as an expression of endearment, I have to admit that this language is very efficient. It has had to be, really – the limitations of SMS messages initially, and Twitter ‘tweets’ more recently, meant that communications were limited to 160 characters.

The combination of letters with numbers, in particular, serves as an effective way to denote vocal sounds. This even works for several words at a time. For instance:

‘LATER’ can be shortened to ‘L8R’

‘TODAY’ can shrink down to ‘2DAY’

Similarly, ‘TONIGHT’ can be shortened to ‘2NITE’

‘TO YOU’ can be abbreviated to ‘2 U’

‘Ex-boyfriend’ or ‘ex-girlfriend’ are reduced to ‘X-BF’ , ‘X-GF’, or even more simply, the ‘X’

Vowels can be eradicated completely from words, and yet they still make sense – ‘TLK’ means ‘talk’, ‘WK’ means ‘week’, an so on. It’s like taking the flagstones out of an archway, and finding it still standing – I can’t quite get used to it, and yet it’s something of a marvel. However, I have to confess that this style reminds me eerily of Newspeak (from George Orwell’s novel, 1984 – something I discuss in more detail here). I worry that we might lose some of our diversity; that words will gather dust and be forgotten, and in such a digital age, will anyone bother to try and revive them?

I hope so, Readers. I hope so…

Do you have any examples of funny spellings or variations of pronunciation you’d like to share? If so, leave a comment below.

What a Beautiful Language #1: Collective Nouns (Evocative Grouping Terms Applied to the Animal Kingdom)


Sometimes, I can’t help but marvel at how creative the English language can be.

Take, for instance, the terms we assign as collective nouns to groups of animals. Most languages have two or three terms at best to describe these gatherings, but in English, there are hundreds! Although we have terms which can be applied fairly universally, such as “group”, “pack” or “herd”, the English language does not stop there. Ohhhh no. Instead, most of the species in the animal kingdom also possess their own collective noun.

These tend to reflect the personified traits we superimpose onto the different species, which not only offers the English speaker a rich and evocative range of collective nouns to keep in their literary arsenal, but is also indicative of the collective consciousness of the English people as a whole.

Let me highlight a few examples to better explain what I mean. The owl, long considered to be an intelligent bird, is personified in the attributes of studiousness, intellect and a ‘sharp’ mind. As a result, a collection of owls is known as a ‘parliament’. Now, given the way we personify the owl, it is not actually that difficult to imagine a line of bespectacled owls sat on the back benches of the House of Lords, occasionally tapping their talons or nodding their heads to demonstrate agreement.

However, if we consider another bird of the animal kingdom – the goose – we see an entirely different story. Though majestic in the air, geese lose their glamour once they’re waddling on the ground. That, combined with their incessant honking, has led to them being collectively referred to as a ‘gaggle’ (though I should point out that this term exclusively refers to their group when they are on the ground – in the air, they are known as a ‘wedge’ instead).  For me, the term ‘gaggle’ instantly conjures the image of a drunken hen-party, out on the town, making a racket. How different to the majesty and sophistication of a ‘parliament’ they are!

Sometimes, the associations we have made are very strong, even when these are quite far-fetched. Lions, for instance, are known as a ‘pride’ – indicative of their perceived courage, valour, strength and dominance within the animal kingdom. Because of this, the lion has long been a symbol of the British empire – despite the fact that the closest England’s green and pleasant lands have ever come to the great beast is the domesticated house-cat. Three lions emblazon the chests of our national footballers, cricketers, rugby players, and so on, marking them as the ‘pride’ of England.

However, one of the animals most commonly seen in our woodland (and, more frequently in recent years, being driven into urban areas in the search for food) is villainised by this personification. I am talking, of course, about the fox. Throughout our history, the fox has been used as a symbol of cunning, deception and treacherousness.  In William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience, and also in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, the proud lion is represented as the direct contrast of the cunning, lowly fox (an issue I cover in some depth in my eBook, First Class English Literature Essays – click here for more information). Subsequently, a group of foxes is known as a ‘skulk’. There’s no reason for us to think of foxes in this way – they’re actually rather sweet creatures (as can be seen here – adorable!), mainly harmless, and only prone to ‘skulking’ around looking for food when they’re stuck in the city, away from their natural habitat (and the source of their natural diet). However, this stereotypical personification has endured, and remains present in our vocabulary to this day.

Another interesting villainisation comes in the form of crows , who are collectively known as a ‘murder’. We never linguistically  outgrew the  superstition surrounding crows and their presence symbolising death, although the world has moved on considerably since the emergence of this myth in the Middle Ages. Ravens, too, are scorned, referred to as an ‘unkindness’ (which, really, is kind of ironic, as we’re the ones arguably doing them an unkindness by assigning them such a noun!)  Ravens, crows and magpies are all closely related, and are amongst the most intelligent birds in the animal kingdom. Crows, for instance, are able to recognise human faces and even alert other crows to people who may be a threat (based on past experiences). They’re not even fooled by disguises! (which leads me to think we should call them a ‘Scooby-Doo’ of crows…)

As noted above, though, most of the collective nouns used to describe groups of the different species in the animal kingdom are fantastic: diverse, flamboyant, and deliciously expressive.

I have listed a few of my firm favourites below. Why not comment with one of your own choosing?


A charm, or tiding,  of magpies
A gaggle of geese
A cloud of bats
A mob of kangaroos
A leap of leopards
A mischief of mice
A crash, or stubbornness, of rhinoceroses
An ambush of tigers
A blessing of unicorns
A huddle of walruses
A shiver of sharks