Latin, though dead through and through, has undoubtedly pushed its way into the English language in an important way. Not enough of us these days know how to wrangle it properly, though. “Quid est?”, or “What is that?”, will help you with Latin lingo and lore.
(Sidenote: Spoilers to the Harry Potter series.)
We know that it takes some serious magic words to actually do something with your wand–Ron has already proven that you can’t recite a perfectly rhyming quatrain and get a yellow rat. Cries of “Expelliarmus!” and “Expecto Patronum!” may be more familiar and more potent charms. But did J. K. Rowling just string together elegant gibberish to create these famous spells? Of course not. A large portion of the magical incantations and other peculiarly-named objects found in the Harry Potter series derive their names from Latin.
Rowling attended the University of Exeter, where she studied Classics. Presumably adding Latin to Harry Potter creates a more ancient air and a more authentically magic impression. It is to be noted that many of the Latin-derived spells in the series are not true Latin; rather, they altered and pieced together to sound magical and Latin, with little regard to true spelling or grammar.
Here are explanations and translations of some of your favorite Harry Potter Latin:
- Expelliarmus: The disarming charm introduced in book 2 is derived from the Latin verb expello, meaning “I thrust out, eject, dislodge.” Figuratively, expello can also mean “I drive away, expel”, pointing to what happened to Snape in the Shrieking Shack as the subject of three simultaneous charms.
- Incendio: The closest Latin verb to this is incendo, which means “I set on fire, burn, kindle.” Arthur Weasley uses this spell in the fourth book, when visiting the Dursleys, to light a fire in the fireplace through which he had just arrived. The most notable use of this spell in the movies are Hermione’s and Harry’s attempts to destroy the locket Horcrux.
- Petrificus Totalus: A highly guessable spell, it seems to directly mean “totally petrify!” The word “petrificus” comes from the noun petra, which means “a stone, rock”, and the verb facio, which means “to make”, thus, “to make one like a stone”. “totalus” isn’t actual Latin either; totus would be the adjective which describes the “whole, entire, complete” part of something. Most famously, Hermione uses this curse on Neville Longbottom on the night Harry must escape the Gryffindor tower to get to the third floor. Draco Malfoy also uses this to try to trap Harry on the Hogwarts Express in his sixth year.
- Interestingly enough, this curse does not actually Petrify (as students were in the second book); it only immobilizes, rather than freezes all seeing, hearing, and thought functions.
- Expecto Patronum: patronum is actually Latin, being a direct object form of the noun patronus, which means “a protector, patron”. expecto is a form, and an easier one to pronounce at that, of the verb exspecto, which means “I wait for, expect.” Thus, when you cast this charm, you “wait for a protector”.
- Quite appropriately, the silvery material which is produced by this spell is called a Patronus. Too bad the plural wasn’t Patroni; this might have been the most accurate Latin in the entire series.
- Sectumsempra: The curse invented by the Half-Blood Prince, “for enemies”, seems to be a compound word, created from sectum and sempra. sectum is a form of the participle sectus, which means “cut, divided, amputated,” and by extension, “wounded, injured.” On the other hand, ‘sempra’ sounds closest to the adverb semper, meaning “always”. Thus, the etymology of this word doesn’t immediately point to its effect, but the alliteration is kind of cool.
- Wingardium Leviosa: Ah, the spell which created the first major rift between Ron and Hermione. Neither of these words seems to be actual Latin–‘w’ isn’t even a letter in Classical Latin! “Wingardium” seems to be a fabricated ‘Latinized’ version of “wing”, pointing to the flying, and “leviosa” is closest to the Latin adjective levis, meaning “light”. As to the pronunciation of “leviosa”, Hermione’s way most closely follows Latin syllable emphasis (not to mention girls are always right!).
- Protego: Coming straight from Latin, the Shield Charm protego means “I cover, protect, defend.” An all-around defensive spell, it has been used to absorb and deflect spells, split up quarrels, and enchant protective coats for sale in the Weasleys’ shop.
- Priori Incantatem: Coming from the Latin prior, meaning “former, previous,” and incantatio, meaning “enchantment, spell, incantation”, this spell calls up the “previous spells” a wand has cast. It can be used directly on a wand, as Amos Diggory did on Harry’s wand to try and solve the crime of the Dark Mark, but it takes a more automatic, locking form when two wands which share the same core are around each other.
- Lumos and Nox: nox comes directly from latin, meaning “night”, but “lumos” is made-up, from the actual Latin word for “light”, lux (or, if you like, lumen). Together, they provide a convenient flashlight, perfect for sneaking around the Hogwarts corridors at night time.
- Accio: Again straight from Latin, accio means “I summon, call for, fetch.” Hermione teaches this charm to Harry in preparation for the Triwizard Tournament, and it was also later famously used by Harry to get the Triwizard Cup to escape Voldemort.
- Levicorpus: From the verb levo, meaning “I raise, elevate, lift up,” and the noun corpus, meaning “body,” the jinx invented by the Half-Blood Prince suspends the target in midair, hanging by his ankle. It was most usefully cast by Hermione during her, Harry’s, and Ron’s break into Gringotts.
- Imperio: The Imperius Curse comes from the Latin verb impero, meaning “I command, give orders to, rule, govern.” The bewitchment of this control can be crippling, making it one of the three Unforgivable Curses.
- Crucio: crucio is, in fact, a straight-up Latin verb, meaning “I crucify, torture.” The most famous victims of this Unforgivable Curse are Alice and Frank Longbottom, who were tortured into insanity by Bellatrix Lestrange.
- Minerva McGonagall: Professor McGonagall shares her first name with the goddess Minerva, the Roman version of the Greek goddess Athena. Minerva is foremost the goddess of war, but also the goddess of justice and wisdom. (McGonagall, on the other hand, is a Scottish surname.)
- Remus Lupin: Lupin’s name reeks of wolf-ness, leading to a curiosity for how he was given such a name before he became lycanthropic. Lupin seems to derive from the Latin lupus, for “wolf”. Even more specifically, the Latin adjective meaning “of or relating to a wolf, wolfish” is lupinus. Remus is the name of one of the brothers raised by a wolf in a Roman legend, who fight to the death for the control of the new empire.
- Romulus, the name of the other brother, happens to be Lupin’s code name on Potterwatch (the radio program from the seventh book).
- In the struggle between Romulus and Remus for the rule of the new city, Remus is the brother who dies, possibly foreshadowing Lupin’s eventual death. (The city is named Rome after Romulus, but this is irrelevant to Lupin.)
- Severus Snape: severus is a Latin adjective meaning “grave, serious, strict, rigid, stern, austere.” I’ll leave it at that.
- Veritaserum: Another one that can be roughly guessed due to English words having also been derived from Latin, verita- sounds most like veritus, a noun meaning “truth”, and serum is as it is in English; a liquid, or water.
- Inferi: Inferi is one of the few properly pluralized Latin words in the series, and that’s because it only takes on the intended meaning in its plural form (it’s one of those plural nouns that is used as a singular noun, such as news, data, or measles). inferi means “the dead, the lower world”, and refers to the bewitched corpses that they are in the Harry Potter universe.
- Felix Felicis: Actually the same word in two different forms, felix means “fruitful, favorable, fortunate, lucky, happy.” Together, the two words might mean “Luck of Luck,” or “Fortune’s Luck,” and so on.
This is nowhere near a comprehensive list–most spells are too insignificant to mention, and many character names can be given multiple derivations and meanings. However, you can always search for more etymological information on the internet; the Harry Potter fan following must have done their research by now. If there’s anything nontrivial I’ve missed, let me know.
As to other famous spells, such as Alohomora, Stupefy, and Avada Kedavra, they’re unfortunately not derived from Latin. Naturally, Rowling could not stick only to Latin, but diversity in the origins of Harry Potter terms gives it more historical depth.
Hopefully this quick list will help provide another layer of insight to your next reread of Harry Potter; I thoroughly enjoyed the series, looking for the meanings behind the Latin, and perhaps you can do so now too.