17

When Trelawney is talking about Harry in Divination, she speaks of his

"dark hair, mean stature, tragic losses so young in life..."

What exactly is a "mean stature"? I can't seem to find that expression anywhere else.

As "mean" can be a synonym for average, is she saying he is of average height?

  • 3
    Doesn't it belong to English.SE more? – d33tah Sep 8 '14 at 16:24
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    It's safe to assume that mean never means average unless it's in a mathematical context. – Doc Sep 8 '14 at 19:33
  • @Doc: Of course height has a lot in common with "math" (being a measurement), and so the term is used consistently across time in studies looking at the size of individuals. – ScottS Sep 9 '14 at 15:35
  • @ScottS Yep, in academic papers dealing with large sample distributions and heavy mathematics, one might say that a given height is the mean height. One would not, when asked how tall they were, say "Oh, about mean height". They also wouldn't describe someone as "They're of mean height." In such contexts (non academic, mathematical conversations) if they wished to describe someone as average in height they would say average. In all the samples you provided, the phrase "mean stature" is surrounded by (seemingly) complex mathematical formulae. – Doc Sep 10 '14 at 2:11
  • @Doc: Apparently such terminology was used descriptively (non-academic) during the 19th c., but I have yet to find clear uses later (except perhaps this one from J. K. Rowling). – ScottS Sep 10 '14 at 20:25
27

"Mean" in this case is little, or short. A bit of an archaic usage, I believe.

Several places in the early Harry Potter novels describe Harry as being very short and skinny for his age. I think it might even mention explicitly that he was undersized due to his mistreatment by the Dursleys. Something about fighting Dudley for food at the table. I think it was Ron who once referred to him as a "midget in glasses".

Later books describe him as being taller, lending credence to the theory that he was not naturally short, but simply under-nourished.

  • 9
    You're right, that's in GOF, Chapter 13: "Aaaaah," said Ron, imitating Professor Trelawney's mystical whisper, "when two Neptunes appear in the sky, it is a sure sign that a midget in glasses is being born, Harry ..." – Hendrik Vogt Sep 8 '14 at 11:47
  • 1
    I always assumed that the midget thing would be because he was a baby. But of course, Ron was also the tallest in Gryffindor, so everyone was something of a midget to him. – TenthJustice Sep 8 '14 at 13:37
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    Being undernourished enough to affect one's skeletal growth as a small child will not be reversed by good eating as an adolescent. – Lexible Sep 8 '14 at 15:26
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    Unless you are eating magical food, of course. Duh! – Egor Sep 8 '14 at 22:20
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    I'm inclined to think that JKR wanted a shorthand to show Harry's improvement and didn't do much research. Of course, later than average development would make a much simpler and more naturally plausible explanation. It's only the fact that Harry's stature is emphasized several times that makes me think otherwise. – lea Sep 9 '14 at 10:30
13

I would interpret it as "slightly below average height" with the word mean suggesting "stingy" rather than the more recent use as simply meaning "average".

The term is used in an almost identical fashion in Samuel Johnson's original A Dictionary of the English Language.

"He ſaw this gentleman, one of the propreſt and beſt-graced men that I ever saw, being of middle-age and of mean ſtature"

he goes on to describe the definition as being "Moderate without exceſs."

As an added bonus, the word mean has host of secondary meanings, suggesting a certain roughness of character, suppressed aggression and an impoverished upbringing.

  • 1
    A long s,ſ, is not an f. – Taemyr Sep 8 '14 at 11:12
  • 2
    @Taemyr - One of the perils of typing from a phone is a lack of access to the correct symbols :-) – Valorum Sep 8 '14 at 11:38
  • 1
    I think conventional transcription of 'ſ' is 's'. – Taemyr Sep 8 '14 at 12:58
5

A full-text search of the online OED turns up one relevant example (the other refers to the statistical mean) of the phrase "mean stature", from 1548:

1548 Hall's Vnion: Henry IV f. xxxiiv, This kyng was of a mean stature wel proporcioned and formally compact.

I can't tell from that context if it means "average stature" or "below average stature", but the OED lexicographers put this citation under the sense

Moderate or middling in size, stature, or age. Obs.

of the word "mean".

All right, so the term "mean stature" has been used to mean "of moderate or middling stature", in other words, of medium height. That sense of "mean" is considered obsolete, but I guess a fantasy writer might choose to use an archaic or obsolete expression on occasion.

  • I'd say "middling size" is more obsolete: "mean stature" is rare but sees use in literature in general. – Hassassin Sep 8 '14 at 14:18
  • +1 - "Mean stature" is not that obsolete, just a bit technical: (1) 1897 use, (2) 1953 use, (3) 2005 use, all these samples with respect to British men! – ScottS Sep 9 '14 at 15:31
  • Non-technical uses more common in 19th century: (1) 1820, (2) 1833, (3) 1893. – ScottS Sep 10 '14 at 20:21
1

I'm going to go a little further in answering this question, so I'd like to start with a bit more of Professor Trelawney's quote:

"I was saying that Saturn was surely in a position of power in the heavens at the moment of your birth... your dark hair... your mean stature... tragic losses so young in life... I think I am right in saying, my dear, that you were born in midwinter?"

In a book entitled The Manual of Astrology, first published in 1898, we find an interesting line:

[Mercury] in [Scorpius]:

Gives a short, mean stature, full and well-set but ill-made body, broad shoulders, swarthy, dark complexion, brown curling hair. Not in any way elegant or pleasing, yet ingenious and studious; very careful of their own interests, fond of the other sex, and partial to company and merry-making.

Interestingly, Scorpius is a winter sign (or at least, late autumn), covering the 24th of October to the 22nd of November. I don't have time to give this a full and proper investigation right now, and I'm not sure how Saturn fits in, but given the phrasing I have to suspect that this book was used as a source for Trelawney's line.

In this case, then, mean stature appears to be using mean in its adjectival sense:

3 (especially of a place) poor in quality and appearance; shabby

(of a person's mental capacity or understanding) inferior; poor

of low birth or social class

0

in statistics mean is average, or a trend. You could say that harry has an average stature or median height.

0

It could also be referring to how Harry holds himself. So 'mean stature' means he hunches over and has a 'tough face' to him, as if hes hiding within himself. He doesn't carry himself with pride but carries himself in a rugged and reserved way. Also, I think in the 3rd book Aunt Marge says Harry has a "mean" and "runty" look about him.

This makes the most sense to me because Trawley is trying to justify the sorrows of his past by how he looks and she's saying that Harry has an angry and hunchback look about him like a survivor of a traumatic event or like someone who was built to look unfriendly and be alone.

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