Friday, June 10, 2011

Professor Quirrell

Potterphiles will remember “p-p-poor, st-stuttering P-Professor Quirrell”, the ill-fated DADA teacher in Harry Potter’s first year at Hogwarts. For an etymology of the name Quirrell, I’ve seen a few different theories. I give them here in order or popularity and likelihood (in my opinion, of course):
  1. From squirrel, evoking the furtive, fearful, scurrying mannerisms of the familiar rodent — the most common theory, by far, and the most likely explanation;
  2. From Middle English querele (< Old French querele < Latin queri) “complaint, lament(ation)” — going back to same root that gives us querulous — from Quirrell’s whining, complaining personality; or
  3. From Middle English querele “quarrel, dispute, altercation” — going back to the same root as the previous, but with more belligerent than sniveling connotations.
  4. And incidentally, it might just be possible that Rowling borrowed the name from Stephen R. Donaldson’s Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever series, which has a character named Quirrel.
I’m not sure whether Rowling herself ever said anything about this particular name, but I happened upon a word in the Oxford English Dictionary which may shed some light on the etymology: quirily, an adverb marked both rare and obsolete, meaning “perh[aps]: quiveringly” (the first edition OED has a question mark in place of the “perhaps”). This certainly sounds like a word that could have suggested the name, Quirrell, don’t you think? It definitely reinforces Quirrell’s diffident personality.

The “perhaps” and question mark indicate that the makers of the OED themselves were not sure of the meaning. A single citation is offered to attest the word, from Richard Stanyhurst’s 1582 translation, The First Foure Bookes of Virgils Æneis: “Soom doe slise owt collops on spits yeet quirilye trembling” (Book I). Of all the strange coincidences, coming across collops again is one of the most unlikely! Stanyhurst’s translation is not well-regarded. No less than C.S. Lewis called it “a monstrosity”, “trounced as it deserves” by most critics, with “no place in the history of even the English hexameter, for it is barely English” [1]. Harsh words!

Whether Rowling had ever come across this word is not at all certain, but it’s possible. She’s admitted to getting names from references like Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (1870) and Nicholas Culpeper’s Complete Herbal (1653), and she’s resurrected a number of obsolete and dialectal words, such as dumbledore, hagrid, and mundungus. Why not the OED?

On the other hand, it seems she isn’t the inveterate dictionary-diver I would have expected. In a 2005 interview, Stephen Fry asked her, “Now do you actually trawl through books of rare words or OED or things, or are they [your names] just things that you somehow, you’ve got a good memory for words?” Rowling replied, “I don’t really trawl books. They tend to be things I’ve collected or stumbled across in general reading.” It seems more than a bit unlikely that quirily would ever come up in general reading. Then again, neither would dumbledore, hagrid, or mundungus.

[1] Lewis, C S. English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Excluding Drama. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1954, p. 365.


  1. Unless, of course, she has read TAoTB, in which case she has encountered dumbledore, and capitalized to boot.

  2. Right, John, good point! This is something I noted myself a few years ago, but I was a bit hasty here. I suppose, too, it depends what one means by “general reading”; what is general for you or me or Jo Rowling is not necessarily general for others. :)

  3. Unlikely that she got it from Tolkien, who spelled it differently. It's much more plausible that she learned the word from Thomas Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge, as I argued several years back in this Usenet post:

  4. Hi, Anon. You might be right. On the other hand, we do know that Rowling read Tolkien (though not obsessively); do we know whether she read Hardy? If she did, it’s something I’ve never heard, though not at all unlikely. We know she loved Jane Austen. I’m a Hardy fan myself, by the way, though I haven’t read him in many years. As a side-note, the final e doesn’t really matter; it’s the same word.