Harry Potter and Etymology
Harry Potter and Etymology
By: Brianna Noll
I’d been meaning to write a Harry Potter post for the holiday season, but I found myself struggling to think of a good topic. There’s so much I could say! I thought about discussing Pottermore’s new (partial) release of the interactive Prisoner of Azkaban; I thought about my love of the creatures in the HP universe and how I’d be so like Hagrid, loving even the most terrifying of creatures (or the somehow boring and dangerous, like the blast-ended skrewts). I just couldn’t decide. Then it hit me (a little late for the holidays, I admit): I’m a nerd for language, so why not talk about etymologies, or the roots, of the spells?
I really like learning about the etymologies of words, but I admit I am no expert, having only taken one semester of Latin, and having exactly no knowledge of Greek, Old French, etc. In other words, I have to look it up. My go-to resource for Harry Potter etymologies is the Harry Potter Lexicon. (It’s got other information about the HP universe, too, if you’re interested!) But I always cross-check with another source, just to be sure—it’s the academic in me.
Because the Harry Potter series is written (mainly) for children and young adults, the etymologies of the spells tend to avoid becoming too complex. That is, you can usually relate the incantation to a word or phrase you already know. Because of this, for many spells in Harry Potter, it’s pretty easy to guess what effects they produce, like Incarcerous (a spell that ties up—or incarcerates—a person), Stupefy (which, you know, stupefies someone), or Reducto (which reduces objects to rubble).
You might also accurately guess the purpose of the spell Wingardium Leviosa. (Can you hear Hermione correcting your pronunciation?) You might be reminded of the words “wings” and “levitate”—to levitate as with wings—which is certainly what the spell does, but is somewhat incomplete, as that’s not quite the etymology of the word, which is a bit more intricate. You might think of it as a kind of puzzle that gets put together:
wing, from the Old Norse vængr, which referred to the wing of a bird
arduus (Latin), meaning “high” or “steep”
levitas (Latin), meaning “lightness”
So, what we really get is a spell that calls for an object to be made light enough to rise up high, as though it had wings. In this way, you can see why Wingardium Leviosa means what it does, and why such accuracy in terminology and pronunciation is important!
Here are the etymologies of some of the more famous spells and curses in Harry Potter:
Sectumsempra (spell devised by the Half-Blood Prince, “for enemies”):
sectus, past participle of sectare (Latin), meaning “to cut”
semper (Latin), meaning “always”
Imperio (the Imperius Curse, one of the three Unforgivable Curses):
imperium (Latin), meaning “command” or “supreme authority”; in this curse, the caster has command, or supreme authority, over the subject
also, imperio, in Latin, means “I control”: the spell announces its intent
Crucio (the Cruciatus Curse, another of the three Unforgivable Curses):
derived from crux or crucis, meaning “cross,” like imperio above, crucio means “I torture”
When you learn that the word crucify has the same root, you can see how both “cross” and “torture” relate to one another.
Avada Kedavra (the Killing Curse, and the last of the three Unforgivable Curses which, interestingly, has several possible roots):
adhadda kedhabhra (Aramaic), meaning “let the thing be destroyed”
avant (French), meaning “before” + cadere (Latin), meaning “to fall, sink, decline, perish”
The Harry Potter Lexicon also argues that this spell may be derived from the familiar magic term abracadabra, which is “a cabbalistic charm in Judaic mythology that is supposed to bring healing powers,” but being that the spell does anything but heal, I have a hard time accepting this argument.
I’ll end with my favorite spell, Expecto Patronum (the Patronus charm):
expectare (Latin), meaning “await, look out for, desire, hope” (itself derived from ex-, meaning “thoroughly” + spectare, meaning “to look”)
patronus (Latin), meaning “defender, protector, advocate” (itself derived from the Latin word for father)
I like this one a lot because Harry’s patronus is a stag, which is his father’s form as an animagus. This detail recalls the Latin root of patronus: father. (Is there any surprise why I love Jo Rowling so much?!)
So, the next time someone argues that Harry Potter encourages children to learn witchcraft (those heathens!), you could respond, “No, it encourages children to learn vocabulary!” It might, in fact, make them lovers of words.
About the Author: Brianna Noll is a PhD candidate in the Program for Writers at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Recent poetry and prose can be found here. Her interests include poetry (of course), magical realism, the fantastic, Japanese language and art, anime, Harry Potter, and puppies. Brianna is a guest contributor to HYN and has been featured as HYN’s ‘Nerd of the Week.’