A life beyond fiction

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by Colin McIntosh About words: A blog from Cambridge Dictionaries

Some works of fiction achieve remarkable popularity by creating entire alternative worlds that seem to exist fully formed; a few even have their own languages, or conlangs. And often, particularly in the genres of fantasy, science fiction, and children’s literature, these books create new vocabularies to talk about their new worlds. Many of these words only exist in the realms of fantasy, but some gain a new life and are taken up in the real world. When this happens, they are added to the Cambridge Dictionary.

Harry Potter is one work of fiction

, together with its movie franchise, that has certainly gripped imaginations. In the Harry Potter novels, a muggle is a person who lacks magical abilities; in other words, an ordinary person. As used by witches and wizards, it is generally used in a derogatory way to refer to people outside their own elite community. This word obviously struck a chord with the HP fandom, and beyond, because it was taken up by British English speakers and used to talk about people who lack a particular skill, or have no ability at all, or are not part of a closed circle of initiates:

I’m a bit of a muggle when it comes to computers.

Look at all those muggles in their skinny jeans and designer trainers!

Another book that was written for children but appeals equally to adults is The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Written in 1900 by L. Frank Baum, it went on to become a hugely popular movie. It follows the adventures of Dorothy from Kansas and her dog, Toto, in the magical land of Oz. It has given us some marvellous popular metaphors, such as that place “somewhere over the rainbow” (where everything is wonderful but somehow just out of reach), but relatively few new words. Oz, or Australia, although a million miles from Kansas, may be the best-known one. Although there is no direct evidence for it, Oz seems to have been taken up as a nickname for Australia thanks to the popularity of the movie in Australia, a certain affinity of Australians for Baum’s Oz, and the similarity in sound between Oz and the first syllable of Australia.

And if this all seems rather childish, you’re obviously not a Peter Pan. Peter was the boy in various books and plays by J.M. Barry who never wanted to grow up, and the expression is now used to refer to a person, usually male, who never seems to get older:

Michael Jackson was described as the Peter Pan of pop.

Source: A life beyond fiction – About Words – Cambridge Dictionaries Online blog