By Jessy Randall, Curator of Special Collections, Colorado College
Featured image by Sam Nystrom Costales
Two decades ago, when there were only four Harry Potter books and almost everybody loved them unconditionally, I wrote about the possible origins of J.K. Rowling’s character names and other vocabulary in the books. This new article borrows somewhat from that earlier article, “Language in Harry Potter: The Literary, Latin, and Lexical Origins of Wizard Vocabulary,” published in 2001 in Verbatim: The Language Quarterly and reprinted in Readings on J.K. Rowling.
For spells and magical objects in books one through seven, J.K. Rowling draws on mythological and literary allusions, other languages (particularly Latin, French, and German), and plain old invention. In a 1999 interview the author admitted she isn’t always sure of the origins of her vocabulary: “It is always hard to tell what your influences are. Everything you’ve seen, experienced, read, or heard gets broken down like compost in your head and then your own ideas grow out of that compost.”1 Did Rowling realize she was implying her head was full of shit? I think she probably did – and of course, gardens require compost, or shit, to grow, so it’s not a shameful admission.
Most of the spells in the Harry Potter books have English analogues (often with Latin roots). Reducio! (Latin reducere) reduces the size of an object, for example. Engorgio! (Old French engorgier) engorges or enlarges it. Reparo! (Latin reparare) repairs. Riddikulus! (Latin ridiculus) turns an enemy— usually a Boggart—into something ridiculous or laughable. Lumos! (Latin lumen, ‘light’) causes illumination. Impedimenta! (Latin impedimentum) impedes or slows the enemy. Sonorus! (Latin sonor, ‘sound;’ English sonorous) causes one’s wand to become a microphone. Stupefy! (Latin stupefacere, stupere, ‘to be stunned’) stupefies the enemy, causing confusion. Expelliarmus! (Latin expellere, ‘to drive out’) expels your opponent’s wand from his or her hand. Conversely, accio!, from the Latin for summon, calls an object – usually a wand – to the witch or wizard. Those who suffer from sleep apnea may recognize Anapneo!, which makes breathing possible; it comes from the Greek for recover breath. Relashio, possibly from the Italian rilascio, to release, creates a spray of sparks. Liberacorpus! liberates a body. Wingardium Leviosa! levitates. Diffindo!, from the Latin for divide, breaks an object into pieces. Petrificus Totalus! petrifies totally.
And then there are the three spells that wizards are forbidden to use on each other: Imperio! (Latin imperium, ‘command;’ English imperious) gives total power. Crucio! (Latin cruciere, ‘to crucify or torture,’ from crux, ‘cross;’ English excruciating) causes pain; and Avada Kedavra is the death spell. This last term in Aramaic means ‘Let the thing be destroyed,’ referring to an illness; it echoes the magic word every school child knows, abracadabra, but incorporates the sound of cadaver.
Side note: Abracadabra is an extremely old word of unknown origin. It may derive from the Aramaic avra kedavrah, “I create as I speak”; it may just be a nonsense sound. The first documented appearance of the word abracadabra is in a 2nd-century medical work by Q. Serenus Sammonicus, a name one might almost think J.K. Rowling invented.2
A fourth evil spell is Morsmordre! which sends the “dark mark”—a skull with a snake coming out of its mouth—into the sky. It is a combination of mors, Latin ‘death,’ and mordre, French ‘to bite.’ The word also echoes Mordred, the name of King Arthur’s illegitimate son and enemy, and Mordor, the evil area of Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Mordred and Mordor, in turn, echo murder.
There are, of course, a great many more spells beyond these, some used only once or twice in the entire series. Furnunculus! for example, causes horrible boils to erupt all over a victim’s skin, and a furuncle (Latin furunculus) is a type of boil. Tarantallegra! causes the victim’s legs to dance uncontrollably. It comes from a combination of three words: tarantula, ‘spider,’ from the Old Italian tarantola; tarantella, Spanish dance, stemming from the city of Taranto, where wolf spider bites were said to cause excitability; and allegro, ‘fast,’ a musical term from the Italian for lively. Waddiwasi! in one case sends a wad of gum out of a keyhole and up a victim’s nose. Peskipiksi Pesternomi! (“pesky pixies, pester not me”) is useful for handling Cornish pixies.
Harry Potter parodies generally include spells that are even more straightforward than Rowling’s. In a Potter-themed Simpsons Halloween special, Lisa uses Abracadairy to provide milk for Bart’s cereal, Fiveminutesmoreus to keep both kids from being late to school, and Head Zeppelin to change the shape of Bart’s head.3 Bart, of course, hasn’t done his homework, and attempts to transform a toad using a spell he makes up on the spot: Abraca… turnintoaprinceguy. It doesn’t work very well. Similarly, a novel by Michael Gerber comments on the obviousness of the mostly-Latin roots of Rowling’s spell words, giving Openadoora as the spell for opening a door.4
The British title of the first book in the series references a magical object popular with alchemists in the medieval era, the “philosopher’s stone.” Scholastic changed the title of the book to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone for readers in the United States because the head of the publishing company felt Americans need things to be really obvious.5 The Philosopher’s/Sorcerer’s Stone gets renamed all kinds of things in parodies: the “pet rock,”6 the “kidney stone,”7 and, in the Gerber book mentioned above, the “philosopher’s scone” and its American equivalent, the “magic biscuit.”8
Magical objects found around Hogwarts include the Mirror of Erised, which shows what you most desire. Erised, of course, is desire spelled backward. Harry sees his parents in the mirror and briefly believes them to be alive, until he figures out the secret of the mirror. Hermione, Ron, and Harry make use of a Polyjuice potion, which changes them into other shapes; poly means many, as in polyglot (many languages) or polygamy (many spouses). The Remembrall is a crystal-ball-like device that turns red when one has forgotten to do something; it is a ball that helps you remember all. And Spellotape—a sticky substance used to mend wands and so on—is a play on Sellotape, a British brand of adhesive tape. Other magical objects include Mrs. Skower’s [scours] All-Purpose Magical Mess Remover, the Pocket Sneakoscope, the Put-Outer, and the Revealer (the opposite of an eraser).
To travel from place to place, wizards may use Floo Powder, which transports them magically from one chimney flue to another. Perhaps Rowling was thinking of the old tongue-twister limerick, which goes, in one version:
A flea and a fly in a flue
Were imprisoned, so what could they do?
Said the flea, “let us fly!”
Said the fly, “let us flee!”
So they flew through a flaw in the flue.9
Veritaserum, truth serum, will be understood by anybody who has decoded a Harvard sweatshirt (the motto of that university is Veritas, truth). Another beverage that comes into play in the later books is Felix Felicis, liquid good luck, from the same Latin root (felicite) as felicity or felicitous. A deluminator takes away light. The penseive, which strains out certain thoughts from one’s mind, is a sieve which, for Harry at least, causes pensive feelings. Like weird and feisty, it breaks the i-before-e-except-after-c rule.
Each witch or wizard has a Patronus, an animal protector made of light, conjured up with the difficult Expectum Patronus charm when Dementors are near. Mr. Weasley’s Patronus is a weasel, which could explain his family name. The word Patronus comes from pater (Latin for father) and may be related to the Old French saint patron, or, in English, patron saint, the saint believed to protect a church, place, or person. Patron is in use today in English; the Oxford English Dictionary’s first definition of patron is “A person standing in a role of oversight, protection, or sponsorship to another.” Patreon, founded 2013, is an online platform for subscription donations, whereby we can all become patrons. To a librarian like me, patrons are much more mundane – anybody who comes into the library is one.
The final Harry Potter book hinges on two very important kinds of magical objects, Hallows and Horcruxes. A hallow in Old English is a saint, or a relic pertaining to a saint. Rowling’s Deathly Hallows, then, are extremely important objects pertaining to death. This combination of the idea of the saintly and the dead is not new: Halloween, or All Hallows Evening, was the night of witches and demons until the church began referring to it as the Eve of All Saints’ Day (November 1).
The Horcrux is a magical object that holds a piece of one’s soul; it can only be created by murder. The OED tells us that the crux (as in the crux of the matter) is the chief problem; it is also “a difficulty which it torments or troubles one greatly to interpret or explain, a thing that puzzles the ingenuity.” And hor, in the 8th to 15th centuries, was dirt, filth, or foulness; it relates to horrible, a word first found in the 14th century. A Horcrux may be a horrible thing, but the word is fun to say, nice and chewy, with that rcr in the middle and the x on the end. Honestly, to me, it sounds like a swear word, probably whore mixed with Jesus Christ on the cross! though I’m not sure that was Rowling’s intention. Of course, sometimes authors say and write things intending one thing and causing another – especially when their heads are full of shit.
Jessy Randall (she/her) is the Curator of Special Collections at Colorado College. Her nerdy obsessions include Doctor Who, The Wizard of Oz, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, among others. Her most recent book is a collection of research-based poems, Mathematics for Ladies: Poems on Women in Science (MIT, 2022).
- “Magic, Mystery, and Mayhem: An Interview with J.K. Rowling,” AmazonUK, 1999. Republished on The Harry Potter Lexicon, https://www.hp-lexicon.org/source/interviews/amazonuk/.
- “Jewish Word Special Edition: Abracadabra,” Moment Magazine, July 2, 2022, 35.
- The Simpsons, “Treehouse of Horror XII,” written by Matt Groening, James L. Brooks, and Sam Simon, directed by Jim Reardon, 2001.
- Michael Gerber, Barry Trotter and the Unauthorized Parody (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2002).
- Sara Boboltz, “Why ‘Philosopher’ Became ‘Sorcerer’ in the American ‘Harry Potter’ Books,” Huffpost, June 26, 2007, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/why-philosophers-stone-became-sorcerers-stone_n_59514346e4b05c37bb78466e.
- Valerie Frankel, Henry Potty and the Pet Rock: An Unauthorized Harry Potter Parody (Livermore, CA: WingSpan, 2006).
- “Harry Plodder and the Kidney Stone by J.K. Growling,” Mad Magazine, March 1, 2000.
- Gerber, Barry Trotter, 11.
- E.O. Parrott, ed., The Penguin Book of Limericks (New York: Allen Lane, 1983), 256. This bit of nonsense, sometimes falsely attributed to Ogden Nash (1902-1971), appears anonymously in print as early as 1905 (The Independent, October 26, 1905, 1004).