Horace Slughorn’s Slippery Name
by Silver Ink Pot
Originally, I thought “Slughorn” was just a disgusting name, reminiscent of all the other “slug” images in the books, from Ron Weasley throwing up slugs in Book Two to the “busted slug” crushed by Kevin’s mother at the Quidditch World Cup in Book Four. When J.K. Rowling was asked in October of 2000 just what sort of Animagus she wanted to be, she said: “I’d like to be an otter as that’s my favourite animal. It would be depressing if I turned out to be a slug or something.” Given all that, I thought “Slughorn” was just a good, slippery name for a Head of Slytherin.
But as is often the case with J.K. Rowling’s names, there is a lot more to it than that.
Let’s take a look at the character’s first name: Horace. The name is Roman, and comes from the family name “Horatius.” But clearly, since he is associated with “Horcruxes,” it is rather a large clue that the first three letters of his name are the same. In that respect, you can look at his name as a shortened pun: “Hor-ace.” Horcrux Ace. That pun works whether you believe the root of “Horcrux” is the Latinate “hor” meaning “time,” or the same root as “horror,” as in the Latin word “horribilus,” or “horere,” to “tremble.”
One possible literary source for the name Horace might be the famous British writer, Horace Walpole, born in 1717. He is best known for writing the first “gothic” novel in English literature, The Castle of Otranto. Much like the Harry Potter books, The Castle of Otranto has paintings that move, ghosts that haunt the castle, and dark dungeons with hidden tunnels. Walpole actually had an ornate and whimsical castle of his own called “Strawberry Hill” that became an extension of his gothic imagination.
Just like our dear Slughorn, Horace Walpole was a “collector” of curious objects from all over the world: china, suits of armor, statues, and furniture. His “castle” became a tourist attraction in Walpole’s lifetime, and he would give tours of its opulent furnishings every day.
Walpole was a great letter-writer, and he is considered a master of the art. His letters were filled with society gossip and political wit. He was also known to “bend” the truth a bit, sometimes plagiarizing the works of other writers in his letters, passing them off as his own.
A member of an aristocratic family – he was the 4th Earl of Orford – Walpole was an ambitious man from childhood. Like Slughorn, he saw nothing wrong with knowing the “right people” and going as far in society as possible. He wrote: “Alexander (the Great) at the head of the world never tasted the true pleasure that boys of his own age have enjoyed at the head of a school.” Indeed, that seems to resound with Slughorn’s admiration for his most successful students, including Tom Riddle, Head Boy of Hogwarts.
The most famous “Horace” in history was Quintus Horatius Flaccus, a lyric poet who lived between 65 and 8 BC. He studied Greek Philosophy, served in the Roman Army (running away to save his own neck), and then entered the literary circle of the great writer Virgil. Horace is most famous for coining the phrase “carpe diem,” which translates to “seize the day.” I think we can see that sort of idea in Slughorn’s advice to Tom Riddle when he tells him to enter politics right away and work his way up through flattery and knowing “the right people.” Slughorn himself wastes no time when he wants something, whether unicorn hair or poison from the dead spider-king Aragog. Slughorn likes to seize an opportunity when it arises, and that is always his advice to others. He likes to talk about his connections in society, and “collect” those who would help him the most.
Interestingly, just like Walpole, this Horace sometimes passed off the poetry of earlier writers as his own, plagiarizing bits here and there.
In his poetry, the Latin Horace writes about the lushness of life, wine, women, song, and especially food. Eating is especially dear to his heart. Horace was a follower of Epicureanism, the philosophy that leading a “satisfied” life is the highest good, and that meant never missing a meal or a glass of wine. Horace wrote: “No poems can live long or please that are written by water-drinkers.”
Horace Slughorn isn’t just a wizard who enjoys “Epicurean” delights at the table. He is basically a hedonistic glutton who keeps a stash of candied pineapple by his side and loves a roast pheasant at his Slug Club Meetings. That behavior is actually consistent with the poet Horace, too, who once referred to himself as “the fattest pig in Epicurius’s herd.” Horace’s last name would just seem to be an extension of the same gluttony: he is a big fat “slug” who leaves a slimy trail. J.K. Rowling also pokes fun at Slughorn with her chapter title, “A Sluggish Memory.” Slughorn’s name brings to mind the slowness of a snail, and the low energy of a slug-a-bed. The word “slug” comes from the Old English word “slugge,” which means “a lazy person.” The word “slug” has a few other meanings as well. It can refer to a “strong drink,” which is fitting for the name of a Potions Master. It’s also rather amusing to consider his “Slug Club” as a place where they can sit around and have a drink. “Slug” can also refer to a metal bullet or a counterfeit coin, both of which might share the elongated shape of the animal slug. That is rather fascinating in terms of the “counterfeit” memory Slughorn tried to pass off to Dumbledore. A “slugger” in baseball is a batter who doesn’t miss. And “to slug it out” can mean a fistfight that can become a “slugfest.” Slughorn believes in his students “slugging it out” to see who can rise to the top, or gain his favor.
All of these uses of “slug” could mean that Slughorn is tougher than your average gastropod. But it is an interesting fact of language that the word “slughorn” doesn’t just refer to those little knobby antennae on the head of a snail.
The word is mentioned in the poem “Child Roland to the Dark Tower Came” by Robert Browning, but he used it in the wrong way. He thought it actually meant a “horn” that someone would blow during a battle. That isn’t the case. A “slughorn” is a term of English Heraldry, associated with Scottish history. The word comes from the Scottish word “sluagh-ghairm,” with “sluagh” meaning “army” and “ghairm” meaning “cry.” Another name for a “slughorn” is a “War Cry” or “Crie de Guerre.” The modern version of “slughorn” is “slogan.”
On Scottish family crests, the short “war cry” is placed on a banner at the top. In English heraldry, the family motto goes on top, with a war cry below the family shield. During a battle, a Scottish clan would meet on a hillside and raise their voices loudly in the slughorn to rally everyone together. Sometimes it was the name of the clan itself, or a trait such as courage or strength. The sound of the bagpipes would often accompany the noise of the slughorn cries.
We know that pureblood wizards think a great deal of their family trees, just as aristocrats keep track of their bloodlines and shields of heraldry. When Harry sees Marvolo Riddle in the Pensieve, he is talking about the “Peverell Crest” on his ring. Harry sees the ring again on Tom Riddle’s finger during a “Slug Club” meeting in Slughorn’s memory.
Perhaps, JKR wants us to do some genealogical research into the “mottos” or “slughorns” of some of these wizarding families? I have written in The Plot Thickens about Phineas Nigellus, former Headmaster of Hogwarts, whose name is identical to a knight who inherited an estate called “Blackley Hall” after 1066. In Order of the Phoenix, we learn the “slughorn” of the “The Ancient and Noble House of Black,” which is “Toujours Pur.” It is ingenious how the narrative moves from reality to fiction with the Black Family Tree.
Marvolo Gaunt’s reference was to a family that also really existed – the Peverells, who were the descendants of Peverell, the illegitimate son of William the Conqueror. Peverell was given landed estates after the Battle of Hastings. The family is associated with Peak Castle in Derbyshire, though it was eventually lost by the Peverell family (through a mysterious poisoning) and eventually came into the ownership of the Royal Family in the time of Edward III. He gave it to his son, John of Gaunt, perhaps somehow connected to Tom Riddle’s impoverished wizarding relatives, the Gaunts. Sir Walter Scott wrote about them in his book Peveril of the Peak. The Peverell family motto is: “Hinc mihi salus” – “Hence comes salvation to me.”
So giving up the memory about Tom Riddle might be seen as Slughorn’s salvation, or even Harry’s salvation, since now he knows he is up against a man with a split soul. Whether JKR meant for Slughorn’s name to mean a “war cry” or not isn’t clear. It is intriguing that the definition of “slughorn” is a motto found “beneath a shield” in heraldry. In Book Two, Ron coughs up slugs all over Tom Riddle’s trophy shield and has to clean it 50 times, echoing the fact that Moaning Myrtle’s death was 50 years before.
Since we know that Slughorn was the teacher who taught Tom Riddle about Horcruxes, these clues beg the question of whether or not Riddle might have made a Horcrux of his “special” award from the school. I can definitely see the twisted logic of leaving a bit of himself at Hogwarts in the trophy room. That is all speculation, because Dumbledore certainly doesn’t consider that a possibility, but it wouldn’t be impossible for JKR to leave us a “snail’s trail” of clues. This time, instead of “following the spiders” it would be “follow the slughorn” through the study of heraldry back to the trophy room.
And what about a “war cry?” Does Slughorn ever utter anything that is similar to a Scottish “slughorn”? His last phrase in the book is perhaps the closest thing, when he shouts: “Snape! I taught him! I thought I knew him!” Slughorn’s cry seems to echo in the minds of the other characters, as well as in all of the readers who are still reeling from the scene on the tower.
Slughorn’s name seems to have a great deal of significance. He seems to display the materialism and ambition of Horace Walpole, and the appetites of the Roman Horace. He is both an old roly-poly, sluggish character, but also quite a sharp thinker who never misses an opportunity to make a connection or “collect” someone or something for his own benefit. It is interesting that he “holds back” his memory, and doesn’t want to give it to Dumbledore. The flip side of an over-abundant life is a bit of selfishness.
I believe Rowling has dropped a great many hints about the use of heraldry to search for the roots of wizarding genealogy, and it is just a matter of time before many of these family ties are better understood. Searching through the family crests and reading the “slughorns” may give us a greater understanding of the characters and the way that fiction is being interwoven with British history.
The Literary Encyclopedia
Journalists’ & Authors’ Guide to Heraldry and Titles
Horace (Quintus Horatius Flaccus)
Picture of Peverell Castle, Castleton, Derbyshire
Open University Geological Society