12

Professor McGonagall shot a sharp look at Dumbledore and said, "The owls are nothing next to the rumors that are flying around. You know what everyone's saying? About why he's disappeared? About what finally stopped him?"

This paragraph is excerpted from Harry Potter. I don't quite understand the sentence in bold. I figure it means: The owls are nothing compared to the rumors that are flying around or The owls (thing) are not important at all compared with the rumors flying around. But I am really not sure about it!

So, how should we understand the sentence?

24

Both Eddie's and Enguroo's answers are correct, but neither say why.

The easiest way to compare two things is to put them next to each other and have a look. Hence, the idiom is derived from the act of identifying differences in objects by placing them side-by-side and measuring: eg, which is taller/shorter, what colour the two objects are.

In the example, if you took all the owls that are (literally) flying around, and conceptually placed them next to all the rumours that are (metaphorically) flying around, you would see such a large difference in the count that the number of owls would look like nothing.

17

You are right. In this sentence the author compares owls to rumors (one of the meanings of next to is in comparison with).

If some ideas, accusations, remarks or rumors are flying around, they are passed quickly from one person to another and cause excitement.

It goes without saying that, being birds, owls fly around too. Note that Professor McGonagall seems to refer to mail owls, since in the Harry Potter books and films owls deliver mail. And these owls are not as fast as rumors are.

So, in this particular excerpt we see a metaphor, a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable.

  • 5
    Your answer is correct, but I think that McGonagall is referring to mail owls. The owls are used to carry post in Harry Potter universe. Hence the letters received by owl post are nothing compared to the rumours. – jnovacho Sep 6 '18 at 7:49
  • @jnovacho thank you! that's a useful observation. I've edited my answer. – Enguroo Sep 6 '18 at 7:57
7

Your hunch is correct.

Next to is a set phrase meaning "in comparison to", "compared to." Here's what Merriam Webster says about this phrase:

in comparison to

next to you I'm wealthy

Your boldfaced sentence basically means:

The owls cannot compare to the rumors that are flying around.

  • You understand it as: "Rumors go around faster than owls can fly". I thought McGonagall meant he/she didn't care about the owls, but she/he did care those rumors. That's a disconnection between us. – dan Sep 6 '18 at 3:21
  • 2
    No, it means that the importance and depth of the rumours is greater than than the owls. Shortly before this, they refer to the number of Owls in the sky, if memory serves me. I am guessing from all the questions that the expression is not familiar to many people when it is to me. Perhaps it's a dialectic difference. – Phil Lord Sep 6 '18 at 8:18
6

In addition to the excellent explanations already here, this could also be an example of implied zeugma or syllepsis.

Syllepsis and zeugma are related terms which Wikipedia defines as "in which one single phrase or word joins different parts of a sentence". This term is especially appropriate when the different parts of the sentence use the word in different senses or meanings. A common example is the phrase "He took his hat and his leave", in which the speaker combines the literal action of take his hat (pick up his hat) and the phrase take his leave (depart). Zeugma is also featured in the comedic song "Have Some Madiera, M'Dear", which has the line "she made no reply, up her mind, and a dash for the door": She made no reply (she was silent), she made up her mind (she decided), and she made a dash for the door (she ran toward the door). By listing these unrelated actions in parallel as if they are in the same category (things she made), the sentence is deliberately complex and misleading, even to a native speaker. In this sense it is wordplay, like a pun or joke.

In your excerpt, McGonagall compares something happening literally (owls are flying) and something happening figuratively or metaphorically (rumors are flying), and comparing them directly ("A is nothing next to B", meaning that A is insignificant compared to B) even though they cannot be compared. We can understand the speaker to mean that the rumors are even more noticeable than the owls, but also that this line is stylized or humorous (which matches the rest of the Harry Potter series).

5

While all answers above are correct, I would like to add a bit more context to it.

The conversation takes place at the beginning of the first book, when all wizards are celebrating the defeat of Voldemort and McGonagall is pretty irritated about it:

"Oh yes, everyone's celebrating, all right," she said impatiently. "You'd think they'd be a bit more careful, but no - even the Muggles have noticed something's going on. It was on their news." She jerked her head back at the Dursleys' dark living-room window. "I heard it. Flocks of owls... shooting stars... Well, they're not completely stupid. They were bound to notice something.(...)"

In that context, you can see, why McGonagall uses such a phrase in a sentence. It is a smart wordplay, as she refers to both the flocks of birds as well as the fact that rumors fly around just as the owls do.

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