I Believe JKR used to teach French for a living, and I’ve seen her speak pretty good French on TV. Probably not a coincidence !
First, no matter how much French Rowling does or does not know, it’d be difficult for any educated, well-read person not to associate “mort” with death. If you want a name to sound menacing, sticking “mort” into it isn’t a bad choice. And whatever its meaning, “vol-” at the beginning of a name also has a somewhat menacing sound to it.
Second, in the world of the books, the name should still sound menacing and carry meaning. If all that Riddle wanted was an anagram, he could have come up with countless pronounceable possibilities, including some without the awkward “I am” or the inclusion of his middle name. But he not only wanted an anagram, he also wanted something which would inspire fear, so from among the myriad possibilities, he chose “I am Lord Voldemort”.
Third, while Rowling has probably studied French, and could certainly look up a few choice words in it, I doubt that she’s fluent. The school name “Beauxbatons”, in Goblet of Fire, is apparently supposed to refer to wands, but a French officemate of mine tells me that “baton” in French is actually a staff. The word for “wand” should be “baguette” (yes, the same as the loaf of bread). This suggests to me that Rowling is basing her linguistics more on knowledge of English cognates than of knowledge of the other languages themselves.
It’s not as if she’s obligated to make all the names translate perfectly into French, or any other language for that matter. Beauxbaguettes sounds rather ridiculous, don’t you think?
If “baton” translated into “goat-felcher” or something, then I might agree that she isn’t deliberately picking names with meanings. But “staff” is pretty darn close in meaning to “wand”, especially considering the problems involved with translating to begin with. And I can’t believe that she accidentally chose the French words meaning “flight from” to pair with “mort” for the name of a character who cheats death.
I remember leafing through a book called “The Unofficial Guide to Harry Potter” at the local bookstore one day. In it they point out that several characters names in these books have interesting meanings. For example, Draco Malfoy. Draco means dragon, I think in Latin. It seems to me that JKR loves wordplay and doesn’t name characters lightly. Three more examples: Sirius Black. Sirius is another name for the “Dog Star”. He also tranforms into a black dog. Remus Lupin. Lupin is French for wolf. Romulus and Remus were the mythical founders of Rome and were raised by wolves. Also, this character is a werewolf. Nicholas Flamel who is mentioned several times in Book 2 is a historical person.
It looks like she put a fair amount of thought into alot of the names she gives her characters. I would be almost certain Voldemort is derived from French.
There are references all over the web to JKR having taught French and having some knowledge of various other languages. …I used to be a French teacher, sorry.
Wolf in French is loup, a lupin is in fact a flower, although you could certainly derive the adjective “lupine” for “wolflike” (I haven’t come across this in French, only in English). OTOH there is a famous French fictional thief called Arsène Lupin - name apparently chosen to imply his werewolf-like dual nature.
In reference to the baton/wand/staff sidetrack, in various versions of the Tarot deck, one of the suits is called, depending on the source you’re reading, Staves or Wands. I don’t think the distinction is too clear-cut…
Let’s continue this literary discussion over in Cafe Society.
Moved from GQ.
samclem GQ moderator
Re: "Which came first, the Riddle or the Voldemort?"
It may be worth noting when HP-CoS was translated into various languages, the “Tom Marvolo Riddle = I Am Lord Voldemort” anagram is changed such that the name “Voldemort” is constant in each language, whereas “Tom Marvolo Riddle” is modified to allow the anagram to work in the target language. It would thus seem to be clear that JKR doesn’t hold too strongly to the latter name; it just works for the anagram in English.
So, Mangetout, there are no eggy-weggs on your fizzog from where I’m standing.
I knew I was screwing it up some way or other.
And I thought it was “You-know-who”.
Perhaps, but without tacking on “I am,” she would not be able to make his last name “Riddle.” The idea that she started with Tom Marvolo Riddle and worked her way to Lord Voldemort, rather than vice versa, and then the French meaning of Voldemort was a happy coincidence, is just not at all likely.
Fine! Okay! “Vol de mort” is flight of death. I was WRONG! Yeesh. Everybody happy now?
And here I thought it was “Lord…Thingy”
No, no… That comment was made in the context of the books, not in the context of Rowling writing them. As in, Tom Riddle already had his name, and he chose a menacing name to construct out of it. He didn’t have to choose “Voldemort”; he did so because it was the most menacing thing he could construct by anagramming his given name.
Well, in your defense or something, Vol de mort doesn’t really mean anything.
Vol des morts would mean “flight of the dead”,
Vol de la mort would mean flight of death. Take your pick.
To me it sounds more like a contraction of Vol des morts. Either that or Folderol.
Or Tod Rodlel, or Tom Raddle, or Romeo G. Detlev, Jr., or Marten Viljin, or Tom Valdero, or Tom Jedusor, or Anton Hert, or Tom Denem, or Tom Venster, or Tom Ryddle, or Tom Dolder…
And “Hogwarts” doesn’t?
Yes, well, see my other thread on that very topic.