Dr. Johnson in the Potterverse

At first glance, they couldn’t be more different.

Dr. Samuel Johnson, 18th-century playwright, poet, and essayist who almost single-handedly wrote the first English dictionary.

And J. K. Rowling, 21st-century novelist, screenwriter, and author of the wildly popular Harry Potter books.

One had an Age named after him—the Age of Johnson. The other, a universe—the Potterverse—named after her most famous character.

Johnson could be chauvinistic towards women, although he was also a champion of writers like Fanny Burney, Hannah More, and Mary Wollstonecraft. Rowling is an outspoken advocate of diversity and equality.

But they are similar, too. They both have described their battles with depression. Both struggled financially and placed morality at the center of their writing. They each wrote wrote massive works: Johnson’s Dictionary would fill 10 large volumes today. The Potter books add up to 4,224 pages. And they became celebrated in their day like few writers ever.

And they both used some of the same words. Words I naively assumed Rowling had made up, given her rich imagination.

Here are a few of them I recognized from the Potterverse that I came across combing through Johnson’s great work:

basilisk. A kind of serpent, called also a cockatrice, which is said to drive away all others by hissing, and to kill by looking.

Every fan knows that in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, a basilisk is revealed to be terrorizing the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Apparently, basilisks have been scaring people for centuries.

bezoar. A medicinal stone, formerly in high esteem as an antidote, and brought from the East Indies, where it is said to be found in the dung of an animal of the goat kind… At present, it begins to be discarded in the practice of medicine…

Harry’s quick use of a bezoar saved the life of Ron Weasley in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. So maybe it was “discarded in the practice of medicine” too quickly. I’m guessing your insurance wouldn’t cover the procedure today.

mundungus. Stinking tobacco.

Mundungus Fletcher, “Dung” for short, is a ne’er-do-well known for his casual practice of personal hygiene. I thought it was just an odd English name. Just one more example of Rowling’s keen wit.

pigwidgeon. This word is used by Drayton as the name of a fairy, and is a kind of cant word for any thing petty or small.

“Pigwidgeon” is the name of Ron’s tiny owl, named by his sister Ginny. Ron didn’t like the name, but I do, especially after I learned its meaning.

There are probably plenty of other words like these in the Dictionary. But finding these four made me smile. Maybe I’ll come across some new ones to crosscheck in Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, Rowling’s latest screenplay, which opens on November 16.

Would Johnson have liked the Potter series? I’d like to think so. We know that he loved books of all kinds, including romances, and was no literary snob. He could probably relate to Harry’s difficult childhood and struggles to find a place in the world. And I think Johnson would have liked to have had a wand.

I believe he would have liked Rowling, too. If nothing else, they would surely have a few choice words for each other.

Illustration by Isabella Bannerman

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