Latin in Harry Potter

A colleague and I had a neat opportunity this morning to sit down with a student and chat about the Latin in Harry Potter. The student was writing a research paper on the classical roots of the story’s plot, characters, and language.

There are posts scattered all over the internet that discuss these things, but I thought I would post our list here because I might want to add to it over the years.

Why include so much Latin?

Latin echoes throughout our cultures. We hear its words and understand its concepts even when we don’t realize it. The student this morning immediately got this with words like malficient and Mordor and Voldemort. Even people who have never studied Latin hear ominous connotations with mal and mor words.

There are no doubt several reason why Rowling used so much Latin in Harry Potter, but we can say at least say that Latin adds a depth to her characters; it builds in multifaceted associations that have echoed throughout langueages for millenia.

Let’s get to the examples.

(These are notes from a quick meeting before school and not intended to be an authoritative guide. You can always look up Latin and Greek words yourself and draw your own conclusion.)

Names

  • Minerva: goddess of wisdom and strategy; Athena in Greek
  • Albus Dumbeldore: albus, white
  • Malfoy: malus, bad evil / foi (French), trust
  • Draco: draco, dragon
  • Hermoine: daughter of Helen of Troy and Menelaus of Sparta
  • Remus Lupin: lupus, wolf / lupinus, wolf-like / Remus, founder of Rome that was nursed by a wolf when a baby
  • Casandra: in Trojan War stories, daughter of a king cursed by Apollo to always prophesy the truth yet never be believed
  • Sybill: priestess of Delphi, an oracle
  • Rubeus Hagrid: rubeus, red in color, also a euphemism for “drunk”
  • Voldemort: mors, death / volo, to fly / vol (French), flight / de (French), from
  • Narcissa: Narcissus, a figure so beautiful he fell in love with his own reflection
  • Severus Snape: severus, strict
  • Pomona: pomum, fruit
  • Dolores Umbridge: dolor, sadness, grief, pain (dolores is the plural of dolor)
  • Fenrir: a monstrous wolf of Norse mythology, Loki had him chained up
  • Filius: filius, son
  • Sinistra: sinistra, left, tricky, evil
  • Aurora: aurora, dawn (first sunlight of the day)

Spells

  • Crucio: crucio, I kill, crucify, torture
  • Imperio: imperio, I command
  • Expellio: expello, to drive away / arma, weapons
  • Sectumsempra: sectum, cut, secare, to cut / semper, always
  • Levicorpus: levo, I lift, make levitate / corpus, body
  • Leviosa: levo, I lift, make levitate
  • Morsmordre: mors, death / mordre (French), to bite
  • Aguamenti: aqua, water / agua (Spanish), water / mens, mentis, mind, will
  • Stupefy: stupido, to stun / stupidus, amazed, dumbfounded / fieri, to become
  • Rennevate: enervare, to weaken > nervare, to strengthen, renervare, to re-strengthen
  • Incarcercerous: carcer, prison / in, in
  • Lumos: lumen, light

Potions

  • Felix felicis: felix, fortunate, lucky / felicis, of the lucky
  • Veritas: veritas, truth / verus, true
  • Serum: serum, a type of liquid
  • Amortentia: amor, love / tenere, to hold

Creatures

  • Unicorns: monoceros/μονόκερος, known from Greek and Latin literature, but were simply one-horned creatures. At some point this word took on magical, mythical associations.
  • Centaur: centaurus, a horse/human creature. Chiron was a centaur and a famous teacher of heros like Hercules and Achilles.
  • Sirens/σειρήν were birds with the faces of women. With their voices they enticed sailors and then killed them (from Lewis and Short’s lexicon)
  • Obscurials: obscurus, dark, shadowy
  • Demiguises: a demigod is someone who is part god, like Hercules / a guise relates to hiding and covering appearance

Latin