As a Tolkienist reading my favourite author’s works is both a pleasure and an inspiration. J.R.R. Tolkien has envisaged a fantastic world which seems both boundless and ever-changing as my own perception of its possible messages and hidden meanings changes over time (while perfectly ignoring the option that there are no messages and meanings.)
Recently, I stumbled over a single and very rare word in one of Tolkien’s most complex poems called ‘Errantry‘ (which to students of English Literature and Linguistics at the University of Cologne was a pain in the backside as one of the professors had people try and find out its rhyme scheme – do have a go!) and this word is ‘Dumbledors.’
Now, anyone who has ever heard of J.K. Rowling’s outstanding fantasy series ‘Harry Potter’ will easily recognize the similarity – but is there, actually, a link?
I found an interview J.K. Rowling gave at the website Etoys.com and is preserved on many Potter fansites (unfortunately, the original article has been deleted as the website has undergone major changes since the year 2000.) In it she is quoted saying:
How do you come up with all the unique names, places, and things that help make Harry Potter so intriguing?
Many of the names are invented, for example “Quidditch” and “Muggle.” I also collect unusual names, and I take them from all sorts of different places. “Hedwig” was a saint, “Dumbledore” is an old English word for “bumblebee,” and “Snape” is the name of a place in England.
A branch of academic research on Tolkien’s works has been specialising in looking for his sources, a time-consuming but extremely satisfying task with a leading philologist of its time. In many cases only experts on medieval literature or Anglo-Saxon will be able to determine the links and associations the Oxford University professor has been using in his very own creative process.
Now Rowling is, of course, not an academic of Tolkien’s standing (which is not meant as a slight on her – there are many writers without any formal training and I am very happy about that!) and her process of naming characters and places will be different from the one Tolkien had been working from. There is a difference between someone using a dictionary and someone who worked on it – as Tolkien did with the Oxford English Dictionary. (And by the way: Truly inventing a word is almost impossible [except for gibberish] but it is rather easy to revive words long lost and it is quite probable not to know about possible relations – “Muggle”, for example, is to someone from Berlin a pretty common sight in “Müggelsee” and “Müggelberge”, a lake and hills surrounding it. I do not know whether there is a connection between these two but with Germanic languages almost anything is possible.)
Browsing through several major dictionaries of the English language it was pretty simple to determine the meaning Rowling had been looking for:
(…) “Dumbledore” is an old English word for “bumblebee.” (…)
The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd edition of 1989, vol. iv, p. 1116, offers the following explanations:
So it boils down to a bumble-bee (as Rowling rightly stated) or a cockchafer, both flying insects.
Funnily enough the link to “drumble-dore” offers the option of being associated with “dromedary” or fig. “a heavy stupid fellow” (p. 1084, vol. iv). It is essential, though, that the number of examples provided by the OED is very small – a possible hint that this word is rare, indeed.
In James Orchard Halliwell’s Dictionary of Archaic and Provincial words from the 14th century (I used a 1973 reprint of the 1855 3rd edition by AMS Press, New York) the entry “Dumbledore” is very straightforward:
DUMBLEDORE. (1) A humble-bee. Devon.
(2) A beetle, or cockchafer. South.
(3) A stupid fellow. Somerset. (vol. i, p. 324)
So “Dumbledore” is a word present in several regional English dialects but with divergent meanings. With “drumble” the explanations are “(…) to be sluggish; to be confused in doing anything; to mumble. West. It occurs in Shakespeare.”
Websters’s New Twentieth Century Dictionary in its 2nd edition, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1979, reduces “dumbledore” to “1. a cockchafer [Brit. Dial] 2. the bumblebee” (p. 563) and with “drumble” the entry is mainly [Obsolete.] “Slow and inactive or sluggish” are the suggested meanings.
With Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language from 1755 (available in a reprint Olms Verlagsbuchhandlung, Hildesheim, 1968) there is no entry for “dumbledore”, only “drumble” is found:
TO DRUMBLE. v.n. To drone; to be sluggish. Take up these cloaths here quickly: where’s the cowlstaff? Look, how you drumble. Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor.
It was with Johnson’s dictionary that I came across a great set of articles of fellow Tolkienist Jason Fisher on his blog Lingwe – Musings of a Fish (a must-read for any Tolkien afficionado) dealing with Tolkien’s linguistic creativity and his remarkable ability in reviving ancient words in his writings (especially in the more obscure texts besides The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit and The Silmarillion.) And there I found a link to Johnson’s dictionary being revamped for an anniversary in 2009 mentioning the bezoar used in one of Hogwart’s potions.
To find a word like “dumbledore” as the name of a powerful magician is quite a feat considering its rarity. It might be present in dictionaries on regional dialects or middle to modern English but if the OED only has a very small amount of quotations to show for it seems reasonable to assume that J.K. Rowling used such dictionaries in her search for fitting names. There is a small possibility that she may have heard the name of “dumbledore” for “bumble-bee” in her youth but this seems highly unlikely judging from her biography.
Or she might have read “Errantry” by J.R.R. Tolkien.
So there you are. One word in a poem by J.R.R. Tolkien and one article. Thanks to the Europäische Übersetzer-Kollegium for providing me with this opportunity to go berserk on a lot of different dictionaries.