The Thomas Pynchon/Harry Potter/collective unconscious phenomenon
January 5, 2008 10:13 AM   Subscribe

Is Albus Dumbledore's surname really some archaic English noun?

So I'm reading Thomas Pynchon's "Mason & Dixon" and on page 470 of the Owl paperback edition I have the following couplet appears:

Bearing in from either Limb of Sight
A-thrum like peevish Dumbledore's in Flight

It is taken from "Pennsylvaniad" by Timothy Tox, a fictional epic by a fictional author that Pynchon, having invented, cites frequently in "M&D".

Anyway, I was struck by the appearance of the word "Dumbledore" in a work that I don't normally associate with the world of Harry Potter, the only other place I've ever seen this word used.

Initially I thought that one author might have picked it up while reading the other, but that doesn't seem likely since both "Mason & Dixon" and the first Harry Potter book were published the same year (1997) and both authors are known to have worked on their respective volumes for years prior to publication.

The only other reason I can think of is that "dumbledore" is some sort of archaic English word but my searches through various dictionaries (abridged and un-) and applying my Google-fu has come up empty. The wiki devoted to "M&D" makes reference to the word but only with a pagination note, not with any source or definition.

It seems wildly unlikely that two different authors would come up with the very same word independently of each other almost simultaneously.
posted by hwestiii to Writing & Language (11 answers total)
How did you decide what to name your characters and places?

I collect unusual names. I have notebooks full of them. Some of the names I made up, like Quidditch, Malfoy. Other names mean something -- Dumbledore, which means "bumblebee" in Old English...seemed to suit the headmaster, because one of his passions is music and I imagined him walking around humming to himself. And so far I have got names from saints, place-names, war memorials, gravestones. I just collect them -- I am so interested in names.

posted by danb at 10:17 AM on January 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

As I recall, Rowling said that she took Dumbledore's name from a term for bees, which your Pynchon couplet also seems to be referring to.
posted by Gianna at 10:19 AM on January 5, 2008

(Incidentally, I got to that link via Dumbledore's entry on Wikipedia)
posted by danb at 10:19 AM on January 5, 2008

And just to finish it off, the OED gives "A humble-bee or bumble-bee; also dial. a cockchafer."

Now, cockchafer...there's a name Rowling could have done something with!
posted by danb at 10:21 AM on January 5, 2008 [2 favorites]

Tolkien also uses the word, in the poem "Errantry".
posted by zadcat at 10:26 AM on January 5, 2008

With the revelation about Dumbledore's sexuality, I think not naming him Cockchafer was the right decision.
posted by Astro Zombie at 10:35 AM on January 5, 2008 [11 favorites]

Over the holidays I watched a documentary about the British countryside. The narrator said that dumbledores were the original name for dung beetles. Maybe this helps?
posted by dobie at 10:49 AM on January 5, 2008

Dumble- (which occasionally occurs by itself meaning 'dumbledore') is a prefix more or less interchangeable with bumble-, drumble-, humble-; the OED suggests an origin in dummel 'dumb.' There are some interesting cites in the OED entry:
A humble-bee or bumble-bee; also dial. a cockchafer.

1787 GROSE Prov. Gl., Dumble-dore, an humble, or bumble-bee. 1799 SOUTHEY in Robberds Mem. W. Taylor I. 264 Is it not the humble-bee, or what we call the ‘dumble dore’,—a word whose descriptive droning deserves a place in song? 1837 —— Doctor IV. Interch. xvi. 383 Of Bees, however, let me be likened to a Dumbledore, which Dr. Southey says is the most goodnatured of God's Insects. 1856 C. M. YONGE Daisy Chain I. xxvi. 276 Buzzed and hummed over by busy, blacktailed yellow-banded dumbledores. 1863 G. KEARLEY Links in Chain iii. 57 In Hampshire these insects [humble bees] are Dumbledors, in other districts Bumble bees, and hummel bees. 1880 Cornwall Gloss., Dumbledory, cockchafer.
posted by languagehat at 11:24 AM on January 5, 2008

Dumble- (which occasionally occurs by itself meaning 'dumbledore') is a prefix more or less interchangeable with bumble-, drumble-, humble-; the OED suggests an origin in dummel 'dumb.'

Interesting- why 'dumb', I wonder? The honeybee genus, Bombus, is named for the buzzing sound it makes, and if I remember correctly, hummel is 'to hum' in German.
posted by oneirodynia at 7:33 PM on January 5, 2008

...and in time it came to pass that for "fay" she said "succeed"; that she no longer spoke of "dumbledores" but of "humble bees"; no longer said of young men and women that they "walked together," but that they were "engaged"; that she grew to talk of "greggles" as "wild hyacinths"; that when she had not slept she did not quaintly tell the servants next morning that she had been "hag-rid," but that she had "suffered from indigestion."

The Mayor of Casterbridge, Thomas Hardy.
posted by buxtonbluecat at 8:16 PM on January 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

The honeybee genus, Bombus

Ugh, I meant bumblebee, not honeybee.
posted by oneirodynia at 11:36 AM on January 6, 2008

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