A struggle over the use of `Muggle'

November 22, 2001|By Michelle Fannin | Michelle Fannin,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

A teensy word from a mega-movie is causing a bit of a fuss.

The magic word is "Muggles."

Warner Bros., the company distributing the blockbuster Harry Potter and The Sorcerer's Stone, has cautioned theaters not to use the word in any promotions.

The movie, based on J.K. Rowling's best-selling book of the same name, opened last week.

The Muggles directive is tucked away among other dos and don'ts in an online message to theater managers: "Do display banners throughout the theater" and "Do promote using the film's full title."

"Don't use the word Muggles in any promotions."

Muggles figure prominently in the Harry Potter books and in the film. They are people without a speck of magic in them.

Warner Bros. spokesman Jeff Hare said the reason for muffling Muggles is simple. Someone other than Rowling claims to have coined the term.

"We're trying to stay away from any legal action to be cautious," Hare said.

Author Nancy K. Stouffer is suing the Scholastic Corp., Time Warner, Mattel and Hasbro over alleged similarities between her books and Rowling's.

Stouffer's Rah and the Muggles was penned in 1984, 13 years before Rowling's first Harry Potter book, and features a character named Larry Potter.

But the term "muggle" was first used in the 13th century.

Though its origin is unknown, the Oxford English Dictionary says it could be a Kentish word meaning tail. That makes a "muggling" a man with a tail.

Fast forward to 1926, when Americans used the word muggle as slang for marijuana. A mugglehead was a marijuana smoker; a muggler would be an addict.

So with such history, why make waves over Muggles?

Shannon Brandon, who manages the Movies at Polo, in Columbia, S.C., chalked up the Warner Bros. policy to box-office potential.

"It's an uncommon practice" to ban the use of a word, he said.

He didn't know about the Muggles ban, and he can't remember the last time a theater company issued such specific guidelines; he has worked in theaters since 1993.

But he said companies such as Disney and Lucasfilm (of Star Wars fame) tend to control everything about their films.

"The bigger the movie, the more restrictions there will be on it," he said.

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