Officially known as Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, the site of Harry Potter’s education is a medieval castle complete with ramparts, towers, and dungeons, plus all manner of wondrous features. From the portraits to the stairs, Hogwarts is a menagerie of magic.
Rowling has suggested in interviews that she got the idea for the name Hogwarts from the hogwort plant which she had seen at Kew Gardens before writing the Harry Potter books. She may once again have engaged in wordplay by substituting vowels, similar to how she created Diagon Alley or the Pensieve.
The hogwort plant (Croton capitatus) is an annual herb native to the eastern half of the U.S. It contains croton oil, a potent laxative, but otherwise isn’t remarkable in traditional herbology or folklore. The origin of this name is obscure, though the “wort” part does mean “plant”, as in St. John’s Wort.
The name Hogwarts appears outside of Harry Potter’s universe. In the Molesworth books, Hogwarts is the title of one of Molesworth’s fake Latin plays. It is also the name of the Headmaster of Porridge Court, the rival to Molesworth’s school, St. Custard’s. And in the film Labyrinth, the character Sarah called Hoggle “Hogwarts” by mistake.
As so often happens to writers, a seemingly new word turns out to have been around for a while. And the ideas are often better established than most people realize. The British fantasy author Terry Pratchett created in his magical Discworld a school for wizards called Unseen University. Though open only to boys (with one known exception) and geared toward university-level education, it bears many similarities to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
Harry’s Hogwarts however is developed in much greater detail. We know a lot about the general history of the school from Hogwarts: A History, as regularly cited by Hermione Granger, and from information given to Harry and others by professors. We learn a great deal about the four Houses, Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, and Slytherin, and get to see classrooms, offices, towers, trapdoors and secret passageways, essentially everything that a castle in a fantasy story is supposed to be.
We also learn about how the school was founded by Godric Gryffindor, Helga Hufflepuff, Rowena Ravenclaw, and Salazar Slytherin, four great wizards and witches of their time who banded together to create a school. Their eventual disagreement about who the school should be open to led to Slytherin’s departure, but not before he created the most infamous feature of Hogwarts: the Chamber of Secrets, featured in the second book. What is odd about the Chamber of Secrets is that it is neither a chamber nor contains secrets. It’s much more a hall, or perhaps a cavern, and seems to contain only one secret, the basilisk Harry ultimately killed there to save Ginny Weasely and derail the plans of Tom Riddle. But English demands a plural in many places where none exists, and Chamber of Secrets is certainly an apt name.
Because of the peculiarity of the name Hogwarts, its translation into other languages was tricky. As usual, the French version created its own rendition of the name, and other languages did their best to recreate the sound of the name, as shown below.
|French||Poudlard||L’École Poudlard de sorcellerie|
|German||Hogwarts||Hogwarts-Schule für Hexerei und Zauberei|
|Spanish||Hogwarts||Colegio Hogwarts de Magia y Hechicería|
The French “Poudlard” nicely captures the feel of Hogwarts, including the idea of hogs in the “lard” part of the name. But the connection to the hogwort plant is lost.
It would be very interesting to read a copy of Hogwarts: A History. My requests to the Hogwarts librarian to borrow a copy have gone unanswered, and Hermione Granger is unavailable to loan me her copy or share her knowledge. I assume the reason the four founders of the school named it Hogwarts is given, but no one seems to have mentioned it anywhere so far.