Why Did the First Harry Potter Book Get a Title Change in the U.S.?

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

by Simon Brew

One of the ongoing anomalies of the Harry Potter series is the differing title of the first adventure. In America, the first outing of J.K. Rowling's most famous creation is Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, but pretty much everywhere else on the planet, it's Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone.

So why did the name change?

It dates back to when the rights were sold for the first book: Scholastic Corporation bought the U.S. publishing rights for what was then known as Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, forking out a comparably high $105,000 for the privilege. Arthur A. Levine, who headed the Scholastic children's imprint that would publish the book, knew he had a winner on his hands—he just had some reservations about the title.

In Philip W. Errington's biography on Rowling, he wrote that Levine wanted “a title that said ‘magic’ more overtly to American readers." Levine was concerned that Philosopher's Stone would feel "arcane," so one of the proposed alternatives was Harry Potter and the School of Magic, which Rowling shot down. Eventually, the author suggested Sorcerer's Stone, and that's how the book is known in the U.S. market where Scholastic had the rights.

Rowling later admitted in a web chat for BBC Red Nose Day in 2001 that she regretted the decision. When asked if it bothered her that the name of the book had been changed in the U.S., she wrote that "they changed the first title, but with my consent. To be honest, I wish I hadn't agreed now, but it was my first book, and I was so grateful that anyone was publishing me I wanted to keep them happy ..."

The change in title would also be reflected in the first film when it came out in 2001. However, the inconsistencies ended there as the remaining six books all had uniform names.

Where Did the Phrase 'Red Herring' Come From?

iStock.com/Mathias Darmell
iStock.com/Mathias Darmell

You may have seen a red herring in a recent book or movie, but you probably only realized it after the fact. These misleading clues are designed to trick you into drawing an incorrect conclusion, and they're a popular ploy among storytellers of all stripes.

If you've seen or read the Harry Potter series—and really, who hasn’t?—then you may recall some of the many instances where J.K. Rowling employed this literary device. That endearing plot twist about the nature of Snape's character, for example, is likely one of the longest-running red herrings ever written.

Sometimes they aren't even subtle. Agatha Christie's murder mystery And Then There Were None directly mentions red herring in reference to a character's death, and a statue of a red herring appears in Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events. Perhaps most blatantly, a character in the cartoon A Pup Named Scooby-Doo who was constantly being blamed for myriad crimes was named—you guessed it—Red Herring.

But where does this literary device come from, and why is it named after a fish? For a bit of background: herring are naturally a silvery hue, but they turn reddish-brown when they're smoked. Long before refrigerators were invented, this was done to preserve the fish for months at a time. They can also be pretty smelly. As Gizmodo's io9 blog points out, it was believed that red herring were dragged against the ground to help train hounds to sniff out prey in the 17th century. Another theory was that escaped prisoners used the fish to cover their tracks and confuse the dogs that tailed them.

However, io9 notes that red herring were actually used to train horses rather than dogs, and only if the preferred choice—a dead cat—wasn't available. The idea was that the horses would get used to following the scent trail, which in turn would make them less likely to get spooked while "following the hounds amid the noise and bustle of a fox hunt," notes British etymologist and writer Michael Quinion, who researched the origin of the phrase red herring.

The actual origin of the figurative sense of the phrase can be traced back to the early 1800s. Around this time, English journalist William Cobbett wrote a presumably fictional story about how he had used red herring as a boy to throw hounds off the scent of a hare. He elaborated on this anecdote and used it to criticize some of his fellow journalists. "He used the story as a metaphor to decry the press, which had allowed itself to be misled by false information about a supposed defeat of Napoleon," Quinion writes in a blog. "This caused them to take their attention off important domestic matters."

According to Quinion, an extended version of this story was printed in 1833, and the idiom spread from there. Although many people are more familiar with red herrings in pop culture, they also crop up in political spheres and debates of all kinds. Robert J. Gula, the author of Nonsense: Red Herrings, Straw Men and Sacred Cows: How We Abuse Logic in Our Everyday Language, defines a red herring as "a detail or remark inserted into a discussion, either intentionally or unintentionally, that sidetracks the discussion."

The goal is to distract the listener or opponent from the original topic, and it's considered a type of flawed reasoning—or, more fancifully, a logical fallacy. This application of red herring seems to be more in line with its original usage, but as Quinion notes: "This does nothing to change the sense of red herring, of course: it's been for too long a fixed part of our vocabulary for it to change. But at least we now know its origin. Another obscure etymology has been nailed down."

IKEA's Kåma Sutra Wants to Help You Master the Art of Loving Your Bedroom

iStock.com/KatarzynaBialasiewicz
iStock.com/KatarzynaBialasiewicz

Plenty of guides can show you how to add spice to your bedroom, but few do it like this new book from IKEA. The IKEA Kåma Sutra includes fully illustrated positions (of furniture, that is) designed to help you get more satisfaction from your living space.

"Are you satisfied with your bedroom? Have you grown bored or tired with the same old bedroom positions? Do you yearn for more?" the book's description reads. "The IKEA Kåma Sutra can help you master the art of loving your bedroom. We've designed multiple bedroom furniture positions that will satisfy your every need."

The online manual features bedroom layouts furnished with popular items from IKEA, including couches, bed frames, and dressers. "The Seated Desire" comes with a leather LANDSKRONA sofa, and "The Doggy Style" has a LURVIG pet cushion. Each design includes a full-color picture, so you know exactly what you're getting into before you try the position at home.

You can browse the IKEA Kåma Sutra online, or download it to read it at your leisure.

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