He sat down, stared into the fire for a few seconds, and then said, "It begins, I suppose, with -- with a person called -- but it's incredible yeh don't know his name, everyone in our world knows --" "Who? " "Well -- I don' like sayin' the name if I can help it. No one does." "Why not?" "Gulpin' gargoyles, Harry, people are still scared. Blimey, this is difficult. See, there was this wizard who went... bad. As bad as you could go. Worse. Worse than worse. His name was..." Hagrid gulped, but no words came out. "Could you write it down?" Harry suggested. "Nah -can't spell it. All right -- Voldemort." Hagrid shuddered. "Don' make me say it again. Anyway, this -- this wizard, about twenty years ago now, started lookin' fer followers. Got 'em, too -- some were afraid, some just wanted a bit o' his power, 'cause he was gettin' himself power, all right. Dark days, Harry.
(Harry Potter, book 1)

What does the highlighted part mean?

  • I don't dare spell it, for doing so is dreadful or unpleasant.
  • I don't know how to spell the name.

Could both the meanings be possible?

(The reason I wonder is that Hagrid looks up some books for keeping a dragon in the book, and he also was a boy in the Magician's school. So it would not be quite right to estimate him as an ignorant person.)

1 Answer 1


Can and cannot/can't refer to ability. I don't know the setting, but literally it should be (2). Either he can't spell it or he doesn't know how to write.

One would say "I don't dare spell it" or some similar fearful expression. And I doubt that kind of phrase would start with "Nah" (depends on the expression though).

  • 1
    Although old, this popped up in the sidebar and the Harry Potter series is quite popular, and so I believe that this does merit a comment more than a year later: Hagrid is illiterate. In this context, it's that he is incapable of spelling out the word because he is illiterate (not that he's simply incapable of spelling out Voldemort).
    – Pockets
    Commented Jun 6, 2014 at 17:01
  • In this setting it does mean a lack of ability, and this is the strict meaning of the word can/can't. A learner should be aware, though, that it is also regularly used to mean unwilling in informal contexts. Whether or not you choose to do so depends on whether you are in the company of condescending people to correct you (your boss, grandmother, internet commenters, etc). So it was a good question that most people will have resolved absolutely mainly by knowledge of the HP series.
    – Dan
    Commented Mar 14, 2015 at 18:10
  • 3
    This just popped up in my sidebar and I feel duty bound to state quite firmly that Hagrid is not illiterate. Although his handwriting's not great, he frequently writes notes and letters to Harry in the series. He also had almost three years at Hogwarts, which would have been a challenge if he couldn't read! The original poster is right, it means that he is not aware of the correct spelling. He doesn't know how to spell it. I can't spell fuschia (I always have to look it up). Hagrid can't spell Voldemort.
    – Au101
    Commented May 31, 2015 at 0:50

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