The three schools of whose existence we’ve known since the books themselves were still coming out—Hogwarts, Beauxbatons, and Durmstrang—all have rather quirky and at least relatively non-obvious and interesting names:
- the etymology of Hogwarts is obscure (even JKR herself doesn’t quite know exactly where she got the name from), which I personally think fits the place rather neatly
- Durmstrang is a spoonerism (of sorts) of Sturm und Drang, which ties into a lot of mid-European history, hints at darkness under the surface and, again, fits the place rather well
- Beauxbatons is probably the dullest of the three, its name (presumably) intended to mean just ‘beautiful wands’ or ‘great wands’ (beaux bâtons) in French1
Recently, of course, we’ve been treated to details on a few more international schools, of which one is in an English-speaking country, and three are not. The one in an English speaking country is Ilvermorny, which—like Hogwarts—seems to be a rather intriguing and non-transparent name. As far as I know, we don’t yet have an etymology (though I quite like the Reddit suggestion that it’s a bastardised form of Île Vert Morne ‘Green Hill Island’2), but it definitely feels like a real place name, one where you might build a wizarding school.
There’s also long been talk of Koldovstoretz in Russia, but that was not among the schools recently revealed on Pottermore (and I don’t know nearly enough Russian to have a clue whether it sounds oldish and ‘namish’ like Hogwarts and Ilvermorny in English), so let’s leave that one aside for now.
My ‘beef’ is really with the three remaining new, non-English schools:
- Uagadou in Africa pretty much seems to be just a shortened down form of Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso. That seems like a rather odd and uninteresting name to give to a school3
- Castelobruxo in Brazil is simple, modern Portuguese and just means ‘wizard castle’—rather dull and obvious
- Mahoutokoro in Japan is equally simple, modern Japanese (魔法所 Mahō tokoro) and just means ‘magic place’ or ‘place of magic’
Granting that Uagadou may conceal a more interesting story than a first glance would reveal, Castelobruxo and Mahoutokoro definitely don’t.
Given what we know about how the wizarding community works in general (mostly from a British point of view, but we do see the occasional Egyptian Quidditch referee and such things), it somehow very out of line with the other schools to me that they would build a grand, magnificent school of magic on a far-off, invisible island (or deep in the rain forest), protect and nourish it—and then call it… Magic Place. Or Wizard Castle.
In the case of the Japanese school, I would obviously not expect Rowling to know how to create a culturally valid and natural-feeling name on her own—but then, I wouldn’t necessarily expect her to be able to translate ‘magic place’ into Japanese on her own, either. She probably had help from an actual Japanese speaker. And in the case of Castelobruxo… well, we all know where she was (living) when she started the books, so she does have a fair deal of exposure to Portuguese names and the language (and she probably had help from a native speaker here, too, just to be on the safe side).
Is there any explanation (in- or out-of-universe) for why Rowling decided to give these three [possibly just two] schools such boring, unimaginative descriptor names, rather than making up ‘proper’ place names?
Canon explanations are obviously preferred, but if none are available (as I suspect), I’ll take a well-argued non-canon case as well.
1 The common, modern French word for a wand is baguette, rather than bâton, but you can kind of see why Rowling would be averse to calling the school Bellesbaguettes or something like that in an English book, where ‘baguette’ has a somewhat more limited meaning. Additionally, wands were sometimes called bâtons in French: according to the French Wikipedia article on wands, Papus described it as an instrument made of wood and iron, “qu’on appelle le bâton ou baguette magique” (my emphasis).
2 Not quite grammatical, unfortunately—île is feminine, so it should be Île Verte Morne to be grammatical, and that sadly makes the ⟨t⟩ pronounced and reduces the probability that Ilvermorny would come from that. But a nice idea nonetheless.
3 There is also the decidedly more interesting possibility that it is really a reference to Wagadu, an old name for the Ghana Empire, literally meaning ‘place of the Wago’, Wago being “the term current in the nineteenth century for the local nobility”. But that’s rather speculative.