I Was So Wrong About “Harry”

Over the years, when I’ve been asked about the NOOBs phenomenon, part of my standard answer (along with the arrival in America of British journos like Andrew Sullivan, Christopher Hitchens and Tina Brown, and the rise of global internet culture) has been that the Harry Potter books introduced and popularized a lot of British words. The one example I always gave was “ginger,” in reference to Ron Weasley’s hair.

It finally occurred to me to check this assertion out. My local library had on offer a digital version of the first book in the series, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (… and the Philosopher’s Stone in the U.K). I checked it out and searched for “ginger.” Nothing. On the other hand, there were multiple references to Ron having “red hair” and one calling him “redheaded.”

My world was rocked.

Apparently, “ginger” becoming “red-haired” was one of the numerous changes from the British versions of the books to the American. Wondering if any Britishisms remained, I found an article called “Six British Words from Harry Potter That I Never Understood.” The author doesn’t specify, but I assume she’s referring to words found in American editions. The words are:

  • “Budgerigar” or “budgie” (American: “parakeet”).
  • “Wotcher!” (“An old informal greeting, possibly Cockney in origin, possibly a contraction of “what cheer.”)
  • “Tea cozy.”
  • Fug.”
  • “Candyfloss” (American: “cotton candy”).
  • “Treacle” and “trifle.”

The only ones of these that showed up in my digital edition were “tea cozy,” “treacle,” and “trifle”–an item and two foods that don’t have American equivalents. The foods appeared in the same sentence, an interesting one, describing the desserts at Hogwarts:

“Blocks of ice cream in every flavor you could think of, apple pies, treacle tarts, chocolate éclairs and jam doughnuts, trifle, strawberries, Jell-O, rice pudding . . .”

Here’s my take on the list. “Blocks of ice cream” and “jam doughnuts” are Britishisms that somehow made it through. (We would be more likely to refer to “scoops” of ice cream and much more likely to say “jelly donut.”) “Jell-O” (U.K.: “jelly”) was probably and “apple pies” (“apple tarts”) possibly changed for the American market. And chocolate éclairs, strawberries, and rice pudding work equally well in both countries.

29 thoughts on “I Was So Wrong About “Harry”

  1. I always tell my ginger, British boyfriend that the first time I heard the word “ginger” to refer to a redhead was from the Spice Girls. (Same with “posh.”) Yes, I was only in high school, but I read a lot — including a lot of British books — and I thought ginger was just an old-fashioned or cutesy nickname for red hair, not the ordinary descriptor a Brit would use alongside blond and brunet. I wonder if other Americans became familiar with ginger and posh in this way. It was before Harry Potter!

    1. Btw, I think in BE the masculine forms blond and brunet are rarely used now, and feminine brunette is less commonly used than before too. For men and dark haired women we tend to rephrase or say dark/black/brown/light/fair haired. For fair haired women, blonde is used a lot, but of course often with stereotype/misogynist/ironic/self-deprecating connotations.

  2. Knock down ginger – Wiktionaryhttps://en.wiktionary.org › wiki › knock_down_ginger
    (UK) The prank of knocking on somebody’s front door and running away before it is opened. SynonymsEdit · cherry knocking · chickenelly · ding-dong ditch · knock …

    Another Brit ginger reference.

  3. All of this affirms my late spouse’s reason for making sure our kids had the UK versions. (Should inquire if they remain in possession of the Vermont Veggie Queen…)

  4. Tea cozy and tea cosy go back to the late 1800s in the U.S. according to ngram. It may have less frequent verbal usage here because many fewer people drink tea? All modern tea drinkers should know it. I imagine that’s where the much more recent U.S. “koozy” came from (the foam cylinder used to keep a can of soda or beer cool). As for Budgie it’s an Australianism, but I didn’t realize it’s the same bird we call a parakeet. Quite interesting.

    There was an article some time back about the Harry Potter edits (alas I don’t have the reference now) which implied that some of the more common spelling differences were changed, such as armour or theatre, but that other British spellings were left intact in the American editions. As an American I first learned “treacle” from reading Alice in Wonderland as a child, and from the original illustrations I thought it was INK until I got around to looking it up!

  5. I remember many years ago finding a link to an article where someone (with too much time on their hands) had gone through the UK and US editions of the first book and listed all the differences. It amused me that all references to “toilet” were changed to “bathroom” but “toilet seat” changed to “lavatory seat”. (I’d love to find that article again.)

    An American friend asked me once what “rounders” meant in one of the books. It’s a game a bit like baseball but with very looser rules and often played with a tennis ball, and with a much shorter bat. Played mainly by younger children, and both sexes. (Cricket was very much a boys’ only game at my school.)

    To me, a pie has a covering crust and a tart doesn’t. And treacle tarts are delicious. The filling is a mixture of golden syrup and breadcrumbs. But the one attempt I had at making one came out a bit like a toffee pizza. Still, here’s a recipe:


    1. Ah, I see you included a link to a list of changes – not the one I remember.

      Incidentally, a story I heard a few years ago. I tried learning German on the Duolingo website and for each phrase or exercise, there’s a discussion page where learners can comment on the phrase and ask for help. One phrase was “Das Müsli” which had to be translated as “The muesli”. What the heck is muesli came the comments from Americans. It’s oatmeal, isn’t it?

      Well, it’s actually more like granola, only untoasted and not sweetened. I was telling a friend this and she had known the children’s author Diana Wynne Jones. Apparently, one day Jones was on the phone to her US publisher discussing changes for the US edition of one of her books. “We’ll have to change muesli,” she was told, “We don’t have it here.”

      “Go out of your office,” she told them, “Turn right and go into the second shop you pass. Ask for muesli. They stock it.” Apparently she had noticed this when visiting them on a previous occasion.

      And I can confirm that muesli is available at least at Trader Joe’s in San Francisco.

  6. I’d say “tea cozy” has been tranlated from “cosy”. I’d agree with Paul Dormer about apple pies. Ice cream blocks are not the same as scoops. Before plastic tubs ice cream was sold in cardboard packs ( about 6x4x1 inches) and called a block.

    1. I remember those. I also remember that back in the early sixties, if we wanted ice cream for tea on a Sunday, we could buy a block from the café in a park on the other side of town, everything else being closed.

    2. The blocks also came in an individual size too, wrapped in paper, and you could buy a cornet specially shaped to fit them. They were usually white (‘vanilla’) but sometimes pink and white.

  7. Wikipedia says that there are about 115 species of birds called parakeets. The budgerigar is only one of them. Rose-ringed parakeets are now feral in the London area.

    A friend of mine told me he was once doing a recitation at a science-fiction convention in Germany about budgerigars and looked up the German for it (it’s Wellensittich). Afterwards, an American in the audience asked for an American translation.

    And then there are budgie smugglers.

  8. Is a “block” of ice cream really a scoop? Or is it some other way of presenting it? My first thought was actually a popsicle or ice cream sandwich, but maybe I’ve been living in New Zealand for too long.

    1. The blocks I recall were rectangular and wrapped in cardboard, a bit like how butter is sold in the UK, but bigger. Very few people had home freezers in those days so if you’d keep it in the freezing compartment of the fridge, and not everyone had fridges.

      You could also buy wafers, which my mum would stick in each serving.

      1. Yes, wafers. The blocks I described in my earlier reply were the same size as wafers, so you could make a sandwich – a block of ice cream with a wafer on each side.

      2. I think you could buy family-sized blocks which could be cut into individual servings and a wafer stuck in each.

    2. A block of ice cream isn’t at all a scoop, but the editor in charge of Americanising the book might have decided it was the most suitable word in context. It’s not a direct translation, but gives the idea that there were lots of portions of ice cream available, which is near enough for a passing reference in a children’s book.

      Skimming through the lists of UK-to-US changes in the Harry Potter books, this seems to have been the guiding principle for most of the changes. For instance, “newsagent” was changed to “variety store”, “prised open” to simply “opened”, and for some reason “candelabra” was changed to “iron chandelier” (unless this was an actual editorial correction rather than an Americanisation).


  9. I started reading the Harry Potter books when I (a Brit) lived in the US in the early 2000s. I wound up having to ask my mother to send me the British versions because some of the words made no sense (I had issues with sweater instead of jumper for some reason)!

    1. As I understand it, in American English, a jumper is what in the UK would be called a pinafore dress, a sleeveless dress designed to be worn over a top. I was once in a conversation with an American woman who had been reading a book by an English writer and she had been confused by someone wearing a skirt and jumper.

      1. “Jumper” was also used in the 70’s in the U.S to describe a men’s one piece outfit you climb into and zip up. Like work coveralls but lighter weight for leisure. Certainly not for a sweater.

      2. That sounds like what I’d call a jumpsuit, so called, I presume, as it was worn by parachuters and not tight around the crotch, to spare the jumper from injury on landing.

        One-piece overalls that cover the whole body is often called a boiler suit. And there was the siren suit, often worn by Churchill during the Blitz.

  10. When the Harry Potter books were coming out, I ordered them from England because I wanted my kids to read them as they were written, not “Americanized.” Of course all they remember now is that I inflicted upon them the horror of having to wait a couple of extra weeks for the books to arrive from the UK while all their friends were reading the American versions. Parents: we just can’t win.

    1. No, not at all (there are transcripts floating around the web), except for one “splash of ginger” in butterbeer.

      1. Thank you. So I guess the Weasley connection is completely invalid in all respects. Interesting.

  11. Thanks for finally checking … but you’re still wrong: this is not a British-to-American change. It wasn’t in the British version in the first place. Rowling simply never described Ron Weasley as “ginger” in narration in any version. Go to the HP Lexicon page that you link: there were no changes involving “ginger” in any books.

    The only uses of “ginger” in the books are the same in US and UK versions: in book 3, Hermione’s cat is ginger; in book 5, Mundungus Fletcher; in book 6, Hepzibah Smith has an elaborate ginger wig. And in book 7, a couple of unpleasant characters call Ron “ginger” in dialogue. That’s it. Rowling must feel it’s pejorative.

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