Quid est?: Spells and More From Harry Potter

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 Patronumpatronum 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 semprasectum 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.
  • Cruciocrucio 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 Snapeseverus 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.

Quid est?: Spells and More From Harry Potter

Quid est?: Octopi and More Latin Plurals

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.

Is it octopuses or octopi (like your annoyingly insistent friend claims)? How do you say algae anyways? Are you really an alumni of that college? Why do we have these seemingly random exceptions to plural-forming conventions? Such are questions asked about Latin-derived plurals.

In English, we more-or-less use the same spelling for different forms and uses of nouns. For example, using the word “friend” as a subject, we would just write “friend”. If we used it as a possessive word, we might write “of the friend” or “the friend’s”. For the plural, we’d write “friends”. Using it as an indirect object might look like “to the friend” and as a direct object, it’d be “friend” again.

Latin is not like this–instead of surrounding a noun like “amicus” (Latin for friend) with little words like “of”, “to”, and “the”, or simply appending “-s” to words to create plurals, Latin declines nouns into several forms, each implying different usages. Just by appending different suffixes to the base of a word, I can indicate a subject or an indirect object, a direct address or a direct object, singular or plural, all by just changing the ending of the noun.

As you might have guessed, Latin also has forms to denote plural nouns. For example, the plural form of “amicus” (a male friend) is “amici”. The plural form of “amica” (a female friend), however, isn’t “amici” as well; it’s “amicae”. Because of even more complications with gender, there are multiple declensions, and depending on the noun, different plural ending forms.

Some Latin nouns have wormed their way into English today, and still retain some of their abnormal plural endings. Here’s your guide to identifying them and correctly using the plural form.

The first matter at hand is to identify when you have one of these Latin nouns. Most of these have one of three endings: “-a”, “-us”, or “-um”. For example, formula, fungus, and forum are all Latin-derived English nouns. No doubt it’s not always easy to identify these; there’s no particular rule, since we’re in English. The best way to be sure, though, is to check the context. Does it sound Latin? Could it have originated from Latin? Are you in a scientific setting? (Scientists love naming things in Latin.) For example, I know forum must be one of these Latin nouns, since in ancient Roman times, a forum was a large plaza, a meeting place; almost a “farmer’s market” for intelligent political (and the like) discussion.

Depending on the ending you have, the plural could be a couple of different forms.

  • If the noun ends in -a, the plural form will end in -ae. (For the pronunciation savvy, -ae is said like the letter “I”.) However, of the three endings, this is the least frequent to make it into modern English. Err on the side of English on this one; a noun ending in -a is much more likely to be English than Latin-derived.
    • In our example “formula”, the ‘correct’ Latin plural is “formulae”.
    • Nouns ending in -a are usually feminine in gender (this doesn’t really have to do with the femininity of the object discussed, but nouns describing female people, non-concrete concepts and romantic ideas are often feminine).
  • If the noun ends in -us, the plural form will end in -i. (-i is pronounced “ee”, like the letter “E”.) This pops up quite frequently in English language, actually.
    • In our example “fungus”, the plural is “fungi”.
    • -us nouns are usually masculine in gender.
  • If the noun ends in -um, the plural form is debatable. Most of the time, it will be -a (just pronounced “ah”), but occasionally, you might see -i pop up.
    • In our example “forum”, the plural is “fora”.
    • -um nouns can be either masculine or neuter (neutral) in gender.

You can follow these rules to identify and correctly decline Latin-derived nouns yourself, but following is a list of particularly discussable nouns.

  • radius: As you probably know from geometry class, the plural is indeed “radii” (with two i’s), and is said “ray-dee-ee”. This double i phenomenon is actually not uncommon in Latin, with nouns which have base stems ending in i.
  • forum: As more virtual message boards pop up nowadays, the word “forum” is coming into more frequent usage. While a good portion of people choose to use the Latin plural “fora”, many more people say “forums”, and either way is fine.
  • algae: If you look back to the plural rules, algae is actually a plural. However, “alga”, the singular, isn’t used often. The technical Latin pronunciation would be “ahl-guy” with a hard g, but it is conventionally pronounced (and thus accepted as a “correct” pronunciation) as “ahl-gee” with a soft g.
  • alumni: Once again, this is a plural form. You could refer to a group of graduates as alumni, but only because when mixing males and females, we use the masculine form. A more accurate form of describing a group of female graduates would be “alumnae”. And what about you, yourself? No, you’re not an alumni of university. You’re an “alumnus” or an “alumna”, depending on your gender.
  • antenna: The Latin plural for antenna is “antennae”, but it shares the spotlight with the equally-used “antennas”. Since both are used in everyday language, both are acceptable forms.
  • media: Yeah, that’s a plural Latin noun! Nowadays, the word “media” is treated as a singular mass noun, but it is the plural of “medium”, referring to the different types of methods used to communicate information.
  • octopus: Wait, that’s not a Latin noun. oktopous was originally a Greek noun, with a plural form of oktopodes. Although octopus deceptively contains the Latin-derived prefix for “eight”, and has that -us ending, it is not, in fact, a Latin noun. Thus, “octopi” as a plural for octopus is not technically correct as it were derived from Latin; “octopuses” would be more ‘right’. However, since language is shaped by what people choose to say, “octopuses”, “octopi”, and “octopodes” are accepted plurals in the Oxford English Dictionary. In the end, take your pick, but octopi is derived from a misconception.

These are just a sampling of all there is, but hopefully this list gets you started.

You may notice that these words frequently are able to take the Latin plural and the English-formed “-s” or “-es” ending. Neither is a wrong way to say it, but I personally like using the Latin forms when I can, because, Latin. It’s elegant. (As a side effect, it makes you sound smart. Just kidding.)

One does have to, in the end, realize that language can never be completely controlled by rules. Language is a method of communication, and whichever way humans choose to do it (and understand each other) is, after all, the “real” way. Even though, as a Latin student, I like saying “ahl-guy” and debating the correct plural of octopus, these nouns will never follow all the Latin rules; we’re in English! So take the “correct” way to do Latin with a grain of salt, and remember that if enough people decide to use a certain form of a word, it’s a “correct”, an acceptable form just because people use it.

Quid est?: Octopi and More Latin Plurals

Quid est?: Understand i.e. and e.g.

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.

So what are i.e. and e.g.? We start talking about words, i.e. groups of letters, e.g. groups, of, letters, and suddenly these two abbreviations beg to show up. Which one should you use, though?

i.e.
i.e. stands for id est, Latin for “that is”. Use it to clarify what you’re saying. For example, I might be talking about an hour, i.e. sixty minutes.

e.g.
e.g. stands for exempli gratia, Latin for “for the sake of example”. Use it to give a couple examples for what you’re saying. For example, I might be talking about different time zones, e.g. Eastern Standard Time, Greenwich Mean Time, or Western Indonesian Time.

In conclusion, think of i.e. as “that is”, and e.g. as “for example”. Now you don’t have to mix them up the next time you use them!

Quid est?: Understand i.e. and e.g.