Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling celebrates her birthday today and shares this special day with her famous literary creation, the boy wizard himself (as referenced in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone).
The popular children’s books have been translated into 70 languages, with words and names in the wizarding world deriving from French, Latin, and English. To celebrate, we look at the linguistic background of some of Harry Potter’s most well-known wizardry spells.
Spells from the Harry Potter series
Accio – This summoning charm is a direct translation from Latin, meaning “I summon”. It is summoned by Harry in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire to complete the first task of the Triwizard Tournament.
Avada Kedavra – This ‘Unforgivable Curse’ has been hotly debated by linguists and Harry Potter fans alike, although Rowling herself put the record straight at the Edinburgh Book Festival in 2004: “Does anyone know where ‘Avada Kedavra’ came from? It is an ancient spell in Aramaic, and it is the original of abracadabra, which means ‘let the thing be destroyed.’ Originally, it was used to cure illness and the ‘thing’ was the illness, but I decided to make it the ‘thing’ as in the person standing in front of me. I take a lot of liberties with things like that. I twist them around and make them mine.”
Expelliarmus – Rowling herself took a liberty with this one, by combining the Latin words of expello meaning “I drive away, banish” with arma meaning “weapons”. This disarming charm makes the victim’s wand fly out of reach.
Lumos – Also taken from Latin, with lumen meaning light or lamp. Wizards and witches will use this to create a beam of light at the tip of the wand, like a torch.
Nox – Latin for a night. This is the counter-charm for Lumous. As one scholar points out, it’s quite interesting that Rowling didn’t use Lux (also meaning “light”) to pair off nicely with Nox.
Obliviate – This spell used to erase the memories of the victim has its roots in Medieval Latin, from obliviscor, “I forget.”
Petrificus Totalus – A combination of three words: Greek petros meaning “rock/ stone”, Latin facio meaning “make/ do/ cause to happen”, and Medieval Latin totalis meaning “whole/ entire”. This spell binds the victim’s body so they cannot move (but does not affect breathing or seeing).
Riddikulus – A spell which sounds very similar to English, but is also the misspelling of Latin ridiculus. Both have the same meaning, “laughable”, which is very appropriate when trying to fight a Boggart which looks like your worst fear!
Stupefy – Another spell that comes from English but can also be traced to Latin, stupeo “to be stunned, numbed, astonished” + fio “make, do, cause, happen”. This spell will leave your victim unconscious.
Wingardium Leviosa – This spell that Ron Weasley had some trouble mastering in his first year at Hogwarts is a combination of English and Latin. Many notice that the English word wing appears, paired with arduus/ arduum meaning “steep/ high” in the context of trying to climb something. The second part comes from Latin levis meaning “light[weight]”. The word is not as methodical as the ones listed above.