Harry Potter language

Unsurprisingly, I've had a few requests lately to cover terms from Harry Potter. (Thanks Bill and Mrs Peel!) Since I'm four books behind in the series --and since I only have the UK editions, and therefore don't know what's made it through to the US editions dialect-wise-- I don't feel particularly well placed to write about it. So, instead, and as my nod to Pottermania, I direct you to some sites that might help.

Although not updated since 2002, Arabella Figg's Hogwarts Express has a Dictionary Page, which includes a glossary of BrE words that have been left in the AmE editions--from at least the earlier books.

The Harry Potter Word Wizard includes various reference tools, including pronunciations of words from the Potter world, and a shorter list of BrE words in the American editions. They also have a way to contact them and make requests for additional terms. (If they need help, they can ask me!)

There's a quiz on differences between the US and UK editions of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban at this site, much of which depends on BrE/AmE knowledge. Good luck!

Update, 23 July 2012:  Since one of those sites is no more, I direct you to the Harry Potter Lexicon.


  1. One of the biggest differences between the Harry Potter books in the US and UK is the title of the first book. As many will know, in the US, the title was changed to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.
    This was done becasue if it wasn't, the book possibly would not have become the phenomenon that it is. In AmE, the word Philosopher invokes an image of a stuffy old man in a long beard staring off into nothingness, saying "Why?" a lot...Not really the best impetus to get a kid to take up reading.
    Plus, I have heard that the tale of the "Philosopher's stone" is a fairly well known one in the UK...

    Thanks for the quick response ;)

  2. I don't think the image of a philosopher is any different in the UK than you report it being in the US. (And I have friends who have degrees in the subject...). I hadn't heard of the Philosopher's stone before reading the Harry Potter book either.

    So if it succeeded here with the original title, I can't see why it wouldn't have done in the US.

  3. Readers of this blog (as well as its author!) are sure to find this page about differences interesting. Particularly relevant to the present post are the lists of individual differences between the respective UK and American versions of each Harry Potter book.

    The Canadian editions published by Raincoast have the same text as the UK editions, even though we have more vocabulary similarities with Americans than with the British.

  4. My favorite exclamation from the new book is "Merlin's pants!", and last week I was watching the numbers rise on google from 40-something to now well over 9000. It's not funny in AmE. Strangely, later in the book, someone specifically mentions 'underpants'.

  5. The American pants/underpants distinction is taking hold in Britain. In the British National Corpus (gathered 1991-4), there are 143 matches for "underpants" (http://sara.natcorp.ox.ac.uk/cgi-bin/saraWeb?qy=underpants) and 542 for "pants" as a noun (http://sara.natcorp.ox.ac.uk/cgi-bin/saraWeb?qy=pants%3DNN2) many referring to trousers. "Pants" as an expletive or general deroratory epithet is still very British.

  6. Underpants has been used in BrE for decades, so it's really not surprising to see it in a contemporary British author's writing.

    I think that Merlin's pants is a funny exclamation even if it one doesn't reali{s/z}e it refers to underwear...

    I have to agree with Mark about philosophers... It was a case of dumbing down, and contributes to the anti-intellectual reputation of Americans...

  7. It just seems odd really, I guess...
    Because, when I was a kid, I would NEVER have read a book that I thought was about a Philosopher, but would definitely have read a book about a Sorcerer.

    Sorcerers have lots to do with magic, and philosophers most certainly don't...and that is where the problem fell I think...

  8. But most people didn't read the books because they liked the title. They read them because they were hyped as the next big thing. They read them because a few daring souls read a book with 'philosopher' in the title, and said it was great. I mean, if there can be a best-seller with the words 'history' 'tractor' and 'Ukrainian' in the title, then you can sell a book to kids with 'philosopher' in the title.

  9. Thanks very much for the post. It adds another interesting dimension to Pottermania.

  10. The pants / underpants thing - 'underpants' would be a more formal version of the word, to my mind. (BrE speaker)

    I've never heard a BrE speaker use 'pants' to mean trousers unless it was specifically to do with the name of a garment- I have heard of Capri Pants, for example (although most people I know call them three-quarter length trousers)

    mollymooly, the Corpus you mentioned - could any of those sources be, for example, AmE books? I don't understand the context of the corpus, but I did notice that the grammar and phrasing of many of the examples that used pants to mean trousers seemed to be more AmE than BrE in style. Interestingly, they also all seemed to refer to female garments - perhaps this is a distinction we're building?

    That said, if you were talking about pants it would be clear from context whether you meant trousers or underpants...

  11. I was in a store in Australia and asked for girls' underpants. The assistant pursed her lips and then yelled "knickers".


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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)