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25 Juli 2007 @ 01:00
He Who Must Not Be—oops, too late.  

Absence-of-spoilers warning

Yes, this post is about Harry Potter, sort of, or at least about the series of books he inhabits. No, it does not reveal any plot points from Deathly Hallows (or anything else, really); it's just a linguistic observation, and, given where we are in the series, probably one that's been made before somewhere.

As you are quite likely to know already, many of the characters in those popular novels by J.K. Rowling observe a taboo against speaking the name of Lord Voltmeter. (This resonates with the special importance accorded to personal names in many real-life human societies as well as in many other fictional ones.) The characters typically work around this taboo by using kennings such as "You-Know-Who" or "Count Laszlo de Almásy." One of the most frequent of these circumlocutions is "He Who Must Not Be Named." This looks, at first glance, like a definite description,1 but, as it is used by Rowling and her characters, it has two properties characteristic of proper names.

The first and less interesting of these is that it is capitalized. This is primarily an orthographic fact, although when I hear the characters' voices in my head (which I do only when I'm actually reading the books, thank you very much for asking), the capital letters evoke a certain prosodic emphasis. It also doesn't necessarily mean very much, because Rowling also confers initial caps upon words such as hippogriff, which I would no more capitalize than I would the word horse.

The second, more interesting property of "He Who Must Not Be Named" is that it is invariant, as we can see in phrases such as "the downfall of He Who Must Not Be Named";2 if it were merely a description, rather than a name, we'd expect to see "the downfall of him who must not be named," with accusative case assigned to the pronoun by the preposition of.

I can't recall seeing a possessive version of this epithet, but given how it patterns in other contexts, you should in principle be able to say things like "He Who Must Not Be Named's wand." If it were a description rather than a name, we'd have our choice of three decidedly stilted alternatives: "the wand of him who must not be named" (portentious!), "his wand who must not be named" (extraposed, and potentially ambiguous), or "*his who must not be named wand" (ungrammatical).

At any rate, I find it amusing, in a quietly geeky sort of way, that all these wizards talking about "He Who Must Not Be Named" are, in fact, naming him. I guess it might be more accurate to call him "he whose real name must not be spoken," but then, that's not his name, is it? His name is "He Who Must Not Be Named."


1. The definition in the link suggests that a definite description must begin with the (and, at least as of a few minutes ago, the one on Wikipedia says so, too). But it makes sense to include pronouns (with or without relative clauses) here as well; after all, he, for example, means something like 'the guy.'

2. This is not a spoiler; it refers to an event that has taken place before the beginning of the first book in the heptalogy.

 
 
Nuværende humør: geekygeeky
 
 
 
Prof. Bleen6_bleen_7 on 25. Juli, 2007 05:12 (UTC)
How did you get the footnote links to work like that? I've been searching for a way to include clickable footnote citations in LiveJournal.

What happens if He Who Must Not Be Named recruits a powerful ally, who must also not be named?
Q. Pheevrq_pheevr on 25. Juli, 2007 16:03 (UTC)
  1. Lovingly hand-crufted <a>nchor tags.
  2. Well, if the ally is female, then there's no problem. If the ally is male, then if "He Who Must Not Be Named" were a description rather than a name, it would cease to be felicitous; since it's a name, though, all we'd have to do is come up with another name for the ally (e.g., "He Who Must Not Be Named Either," or maybe just "Either" for short).
Prof. Bleen6_bleen_7 on 3. August, 2007 02:43 (UTC)
Oh, okay—thanks.

No self-respecting arch-villain would tolerate a moniker like "Either"; it would clash with his ego. Perhaps that's why villains can never cooperate longer than about half a storyline.

Oops—I had intended to specify a male ally. Male culpa.
Q. Pheevr: Plaid god!q_pheevr on 4. August, 2007 05:06 (UTC)
No self-respecting arch-villain would tolerate a moniker like "Either"; it would clash with his ego.

So what you're saying is that He Who Must Not Be Named Either must not be named "Either"?

Henrytahnan on 25. Juli, 2007 19:21 (UTC)
I wish I'd thought of this example when commenting on this post by Emma of Some-Antics. I noted there that my intuitions are that "I plan to kill he who must not be named" sounds better to me, even without capitals, than "I plan to kill him who must not be named". Even if you replace "who must not be named" with "who killed my father". For what it's worth.
Q. Pheevr: umop apisdnq_pheevr on 26. Juli, 2007 17:03 (UTC)

If you're looking for more examples, I think that in John Mortimer's Rumpole books, She Who Must Be Obeyed works the same way.

For me, "I plan to kill he who killed my father" sounds really weird, if not totally ungrammatical. It feels (for whatever that's worth!) like a register clash: if I'm in a sufficiently colloquial register to want to use a nominative pronoun there—the register in which I use who consistently instead of whom—then I can't attach a relative clause to a pronoun at all. (This really doesn't make any sense—I'm basically saying that the register in which pronouns modified by relative clauses are invariably nominative doesn't permit pronouns to be modified by nominative clauses. Right, and in the land where all swans are black, there are no swans.)