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Ten Latin Spells From Harry Potter Posted by on May 7, 2014 in Latin Language

The magical world of J. K. Rowling is known by millions (if not billions) of children, teens, and adults. Especially  those who grew up reading the books and then watched the magic come to life of the silver screen later on. J.K. Rowling created the world of Harry Potter from her vast imagination (and personal experience) and perhaps from other sources.  These included Dickens and Tolkien, which she says filled her free time during her college years.

J. K. Rowling

J. K. Rowling Courtesy of Wikicommons & Daniel Ogren.

J.K Rowling attended University of Exeter and received her BA in French and Classics. It is evident that she received a degree in Classics, because the Harry Potter series is filled with Latin words and ancient mythology. While the mythological references may be easier to see in character names (i.e Minerva McGonagall as in Minerva the Roman goddess of wisdom); the Latin reference may not be as discernible.

 

SPELLS THAT USE “LATIN”

Accio: Latin “I summon.”

Accio is a verb that means “I call, summon, send for, invite;” Harry Potter uses it in the first challenge of the TriWizard Tournament.

Stupefy: Pseudo-Latin “I cause (you) to be stunned.

Stupefy is a stunning spell which is a hodgepodge of two Latin words. The Latin verb stupeo meaning “to be stunned, numbed, astonished”  and fio meaning “make, do, cause to happen.” The spell is used to stun opponents.

Reducto: Latin “Having been reduced” or ” I bring back or withdraw”

Reducto is not the 1st singular form (the “I reduced” form), but a perfect passive participles meaning “having been reduced.” However, it could be from the rare verb reducto  (used in a Aurelius Victor “De Caesaribus“) meaning to withdraw. In either case, the spell itself seems to be used as a pulverize spell which “reduces” its intended object to its basic form. You can see Ginny cast reducto at the end of this video.

Nox: Latin for “night.”

This is a wand extinguishing spell. It is used several times by characters in Harry Potter to dim their wands and proceed with their activities clandestine.

Lumos Maxima: Pseudo-Latin ” Great Light!”

Let’s start off with the easier word, maxima meaning “great, large, or vast.”  Now for the difficult part, I was a bit unsure why Rowling decided on lumos. It closely resembles the Latin lumen meaning “light, lamp,” but the most obvious word she should have used would have been “Lux” which actually means “light, brightness.” Furthermore “Lux” (as a wand lighting charm)would have been a nice parallel to “Nox” (the wand extinguishing spell). That being said, lumen is a neuter singular noun and thus I have to assumer lumos would be as well ( but the –os ending is more Greek to me). Since lumen is a neuter singular noun, maxima can only be feminine or netuer plural. Thus, I would have to argue that Rowling forgot her grammar rules or simply like the way these two words sounded together.

Expecto Patronum: Latin “I await a guardian.”

Expecto means “I await, look for, hope or desire for;” while Patronum means “a guardian, protector, or defender before a court.” It is nice that Rowling recalled her Latin grammar in this saying, since Patronum is declined properly to the accusative form(direct object).

**In this clip, there is a nice moment were Harry Potter actually calls the result of the spell (usually some sort of animal) a “Patronus” which is the nominative (subject form) of the noun. YAY for Latin!

Homenem revilio:  Pseudo-Latin “I unveil the man”

In proper Latin, it’s hominem revelo, “I unveil the man.” It is therefore a logical thing to say when outing someone hiding under an invisibility cloak.

 The Unforgivable Curses

Imperio:  Latin “a command, order .”

The curse would obviously be used to command people or subject them to mind control. The strength and its the duration of the curse is determined by person who cast it, as well as by the level of resistance of the victim. The spell is formally known as the Imperius curse. Imperius which is not Latin, but Pseudo-Latin. Rowling seems to have simply added the –us ending to the Imperio root. Today, the words “empire or imperial” are derived from this very common Latin word.

Crucio: Latin “I torture.”

This curse, again, would be implanted to torture people. The curse is so powerful that it can even torture a person(s) to the point that they are exhausted to death or causes permanent amnesia and insanity (the case of Neville’s parents, who were tortured by Bellatrix Lestrange). This spell is known as the Cruciatus curse, which is perfect Latin. Cruciatus is derived from Crucio and is the perfect passive particple form of the verb. Furthermore, the resemblance to the word crucifixion is apparent. Crucifixion was a standard form of execution in ancient Rome.

Avada Kedavra: Pseudo-Latin “Let the thing be destroyed” or “Let the thing be a corpse”

2004 Rowling said the following about the Killing Curse:

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 round and make them mine.”[

So, where does the Latin fit in?

Rowling may have changed the ending of the spell to include the Latin word cadaver which means “corpse.”

**However, I should note that Harry Potter fans and scholars have largely debated the origins of both abracadabra, its meaning, its origins, and thus how it should be translated in Harry Potter. Regardless, it is a killing curse, which only two people have survived.

 

 Here are some examples of Latin references that are NOT spells:

Hogwarts Motto: “Draco Dormiens Numquam Titillandus” means “Never tickle a sleeping dragon!” or “A dragon who is sleeping never tickle.”

Severus Snape: Severus means “strict” or “harsh” in Latin. This obviously fits his character as a professor of Potions and the Dark Arts.

Ludo Bagman: Ludo means “I play” or “I play a game” in Latin. In the series, he was assigned to the post of Head of the Department of Magical Games and Sports; thus, he was responsible in part for both the Quidditch World Cup and the TriWizard Tournament (both events are described in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire).

Dolores Umbridge: Dolores means “pain, ache, suffering, and anguish.” Umbra means “shadow, uninvited guest, pretense, representation, or semblance.” Therefore, her name comes to mean a “painful one who is uninvited,” or “suffering but puts up a pretense( of being sweet),” or lastly ” she is the representation of anguish.” In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,  she caused Harry a lot of pain in various detention-like settings.

Lord Voldemort: Volo  means either “I wish” or “I fly,” de can mean “from” or “away,” and  mort may be a form of mors, mortis meaning “death.” So the Dark Lord’s name literally means “One who flies from death” (as in he is hard to kill) or “One who makes YOU wish you were away from death” (as in he is horrid and death is more seemly).

Albus Dumbledore: Albus means “white” or “fortunate”  in Latin. The books  always say Dumbledore has a white beard. But, this Latin term could also refer to the fact that he is not a dark or evil wizard.

 

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About the Author:Brittany Britanniae

Hello There! Please feel free to ask me anything about Latin Grammar, Syntax, or the Ancient World.


Comments:

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  2. Guillermo Camoriano:

    I both enjoy and appreciate your insights into the Latin language, especially as it relates to the Harry Potter series. With respect to Lord Voldemort, I always thought the interpretation to Latin would be “wish of death” (death wish). Keep up the good work and Felix Dies Natalis!!

  3. Mikka:

    inaudire non counter- not to hear with no counter

    protection- to make your opponent deaf so they cant have a counter spell.

  4. Elma van Wyk:

    I enjoyed your versions of the translations of the Harry Potter spells and expressions very much… I taught Latin at school for 40 + years and did many various projects during that time- one of which described the “Latin in Harry Potter ” and the elevating effects it had on anyone with even only a little Latin -knowledge… Pure pleasure! I must say I do rather prefer the version that Guillermo suggested that Voldemorte would rather mean ” wish for death” I wouldn’t interpret the “de” as an extant preposition but rather as an infix connecting the two concepts… Whichever way, it’s great fun!
    Thanks for the read!

  5. Tim P:

    Hi!
    Excellent job here! I used it as a reference for someone claiming Rowling was using real spells (rolls eyes and laughs). However, while skimming through it, I noticed one slight mistake. Under Expecto Patronum, I think you meant to say, “masculine nominative,” form since Patronum is already nominative, just neuter. I didn’t notice anything more than that, but I thought I might just let you know. 😉 Cheers!

  6. Leonard Klass:

    Thank you Brittany. A very interesting article.

    Also Remus Lupin, werewolf. Remus was a co-founder of Rome and him and his twin brother were suckled by a wolf. Lupus in Latin means wolf.

    Studied Latin at high school many years ago. Since then my knowledge of Latin has largely gone down the drain. Read the Harry Potter series to my sons when they were young.

  7. Leonard Klass:

    And of course Malfoy. Mal means bad in Latin. Malady, malignant, maladmnister, malaria,et al.

  8. Janey:

    Albus and Severus were the names of two quite well known gladiators during the Roman Imperial era. A wall painting over their fight has been found, and from it can be read that Severus won the fight, killing Albus. My guess is Rowling stumbled upon this information when deciding on the names – perhaps she was giving a wink to all history buffs out there about how the two character’s stories would play out. 😉

  9. Cole:

    Also veritaserum is the potion in Harry Potter that forces the user to tell the truth. The stem “ver”, which is at the beginning of the word means true. It’s the serum that will force you to say true statements

  10. Donny:

    I always thought Voldemort’s name was based on French. ”vol” from theft/flight, ”de” meaning of, and ”mort” meaning death, which would translate in its entirety to ”theft/flight of death”.

  11. Wallace Boucher:

    its fantastic as your other articles : D, regards for posting.

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